OPINION: Targeting free speech won’t solve City Hall’s problems

George Mathewson

The sad spectacle that is Sarnia’s municipal government may have hit bottom last week when council approved a measure that will muzzle political discourse in this city for years to come.

In a 5-4 vote, council passed a Draconian amendment to the city’s Code of Conduct that prohibits any member of council from making “any negative comment or insinuation” about another councillor or staff member.

The restriction applies to any councillor expressing a personal opinion at any time, anywhere, on any subject.

It was a kneejerk reaction to the fallout from Bradleygate during which ugly comments were made about certain councillors and staff members, primarily on Facebook and Twitter.

Let’s be clear, here. Municipal employees do require protection from verbal attacks from councillors because they are employees of the municipality and therefore unable to defend themselves.

But this gag order prohibits our elected representatives from saying anything negative about each other — indeed, even “insinuating” negativity — and should be seen for what it is, an insidious limitation on freedom of expression.

Going forward, if a councillor says or implies something critical about another councillor he or she can be investigated and censured by the city’s integrity commissioner.

What has made City Hall so vital — unlike the scripted circus that is Queen’s Park and the House of Commons — is its refreshing vigour as a democratic institution.

City Hall is still a marketplace for ideas, where anyone can participate and good councillors make their impact through free and transparent discourse.

This dreadful decision made at a Dec. 12 council meeting was opposed by Mayor Mike Bradley and councillors Dave Boushy, Andy Bruziewicz and Mike Kelch, who rightly argued it goes too far and will stifle debate.

But to no avail.

A short time later, a councillor asked the city engineer about the crumbling seawall in Bright’s Grove, and he replied it’s a neglected asset that now requires at least $25 million to fix.

“I mean, I don’t want to say neglect,” he suddenly interjected, seemingly aware the line on “negativity” had moved and his word may have crossed it.

Never mind that the seawall has been neglected, the shoreline is eroding and the city engineer’s assessment was fair and accurate. In the new era of sunshine and lollipops, where everyone smiles and says only positive words, the truth has become a dangerous thing.

A policy that targets freedom of speech will not solve city hall’s problems, it will make them worse. With political debate, the freedom to be inoffensive is no freedom at all.