By Nick Bernard
Integrity Commissioner Harold Elston made his last report to Algonquin Highlands council during their meeting on Jan. 20, ahead of the municipal election set for later this year. In his report, Elston outlined his activities since his appointment in March 2019, and his recommendations for council ahead of October’s municipal election.
It is the function of the integrity commissioner to advise mayor, council, and other appointees on the policies and procedures that govern ethical behaviour within the government.
As commissioner, Elston is also responsible for investigating breaches in the various codes of conduct council adheres to. Elston reported that, in Algonquin Highlands, he had received only one request for inquiry, concerning a resident’s lease for his airport hangar. Overall, one of the most frequent topics he’s received inquiries for have involved anonymous complaints and closed meetings, relaying advice he’s given to other jurisdictions.
“As municipal councils in Ontario finish the third year of this term and start in on the final leg, I am sensing a certain level of fatigue setting in,” Elston’s report said, characterizing his interactions with municipalities across Ontario over the past term, including Algonquin Highlands. “It may be that the excitement and enthusiasm that greeted the beginning of the session has been subdued by the long hours, late nights and seemingly endless important issues that you are called upon to consider and deal with. The fact that most of your term has been in the midst of a pandemic has certainly contributed to any feelings of exhaustion and discontent.”
Elston’s presentation to council included a detailed walkthrough of the council’s roles and responsibilities, their codes of conduct, and a summary of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, which addresses how councillors are required to address such conflicts of interest.
“Everything we talk about – whether it’s conflicts or relations with staff, or just conduct during a council meeting – all goes to maintaining [the] public trust,” Elston said. “At the end of the day, folks … have to think that, those five, six people that are making the decisions … they’re doing it in the public interest, not their own private interest.”
The presentation also covered a social media policy, which forbids councillors from promoting any third-party events, products, and services. The policy also forbids the promotion of any particular political party or candidate at any level, as well as criticism of municipal staff.
Algonquin Highlands mayor Carol Moffatt called the presentation valuable, saying it’s important for council to have access to its integrity commissioner to keep council informed of its responsibilities.
“It helps us stay on the right side,” she said. “This is a confusing and complicated process – even trying to explain some of the conflicts can be a challenge, and this job isn’t as easy as many believe it to be … the complexities lie exactly in … ensuring the protection of the integrity of the office and the public’s trust.”
Elston’s report also reviewed the rules around the municipal election, and offered advice to councillors that are seeking re-election.
“Whether it was your first term or your tenth, you have undoubtedly learned much about your community, its issues and its residents,” Elston concludes. “If you feel you have made mistakes or have regrets, remember that these experiences serve to make you a better Member of Council and a stronger leader. Science tells us that there is a causal connection between failure and future success. As Nietzsche said: ‘What does not kill me makes me stronger.’”
Elston’s report, as well as his accompanying PowerPoint presentation, is available on the Algonquin Highlands civic portal at algonquinhighlands.civicweb.net/
The full Jan. 20 meeting of Algonquin Highlands council is available to view on YouTube.