Integrity Commissioner Janet Leiper is worried about decorum at city council. No wonder. After a term that saw a hurtling mayor bowl over a grey-haired female councillor on the floor of the chamber – an event replayed over and over for the entertainment of late-night talk-show viewers – the council has a reputation for rude and rowdy behaviour. But is tougher wording in the councillors’ code of conduct the solution?
In a report scheduled to come before city council’s executive committee on Tuesday, Ms. Leiper says the public has made “ongoing complaints” about behaviour at council. City hall officials have complained, too, saying councillors have treated them disrespectfully when they come before council or its committees to explain policies or answer questions.
She wants incoming councillors to sign a form on which they “solemnly declare” they have read the conduct code. To remind councillors of their obligation to behave, Ms. Leiper also proposes inserting the following paragraph in the code:
“A member of Council does best when he acts in service of the people who elect him. She strives to speak clearly and honestly. He does not attack or demonize those who complain or do not agree with him. She is careful with the people’s trust and resources. When faced with a complaint, he looks for what he can learn. She apologizes with generosity and forgives with equanimity. All members of Council can set a good example for the future leaders who are among them.”
Those are nice sentiments, but they should go without saying. It is hard to see that good would come from codifying what should be simple common sense. The result could be a flood of time-consuming code-of-conduct complaints against councillors who do nothing more than toss a few intemperate words across the chamber. Who decides whether a remark demonized an opponent or simply skewered him with a sharp phrase? Who says when a councillor’s apology is generous enough?
The best way to deal with hot-headed legislators is on the scene in the chamber itself, not after the fact through a city official. It is what Speakers of the House – and city council Speakers – are for. If a councillor acts up repeatedly, voters can always throw him or her out at election time.
“I don’t believe you can replace the public’s good judgment with that of the integrity commissioner,” councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong says. “When the integrity commissioner starts editing you, it’s a very fine line.”
Besides, he says, “the art of the good heckle” can be part of political debates. He is right there.
Tune in to the Mother of Parliaments one day to hear the hubbub as British MPs fire quips back and forth. The Australian parliament is famously raucous, too. Taiwan’s features regular fist fights. In London’s city council, Mayor Boris Johnson gets a going over from razor-tongued opponents at Mayor’s Question Time.
Toronto city council is pretty tame by comparison. Councillors Gord Perks and Giorgio Mammoliti had a toe-to-toe standoff a couple of years ago, but in the end nothing more than angry words were exchanged. Councillor Paula Fletcher barked at critics in the public gallery during 2010 city hall hearings: “Oh, come and run against me. Come on down, baby.” She apologized afterward.
Much of the drama in the chamber this term, of course, has involved Rob Ford. It is hard to imagine another hurtling mayor coming along. With luck, the temperature at council will come down if (the fates allowing) he departs the city hall scene for good.
Ford or no Ford, legislating decorum at city council is a bad idea.