Mayor Mike Bradley insists nothing specific is driving his campaign to hire an integrity commissioner for Sarnia council, but he is pushing hard for it.
“Over the years we’ve had issues about the conduct of (council members) and there’s been no vehicle to deal with it apart from elections,” he said.
The public also raises concerns fairly regularly, he said. Questions arise about whether a council member should declare a conflict of interest or a political office is being abused.
“The only mechanism that’s there now is the court of public opinion,” the mayor said.
With council’s recent approval, city staff is preparing a report that could lead to the appointment of an Integrity Commissioner and the creation of a Code of Conduct for Sarnia’s elected leaders.
An Integrity Commissioner would ensure greater accountability, said Bradley, who has 30 years on council.
Along with a Code of Conduct, he or she will act as a preventive tool as well, he said, suggesting local politicians may think twice if they know they could be formally investigated.
“It also protects the mayor and councillors in a situation where they think they’ve been slandered,” Bradley said.
Nothing specific has prompted the move, he said.
“It’s like the old saying, put a new roof on while the sun is shining so you’re ready if it rains.
“I’d like to have this in place prior to anything happening.”
Having an Integrity Commissioner on retainer - for an estimated $15,000 to $20,000 a year - is necessary in an era when the news media is less of a political watchdog, the mayor said.
“It’s happening in Sarnia and it’s happening across North America. Media outlets have fewer resources and fewer reporters. The reshaping of the media means there is less accountability generally when it comes to local government.”
The Municipal Act now allows municipalities to appoint an independent third party to investigate complaints and recommend penalties for politicians who violate the rules.
Until the Act was amended in 2001, municipalities were the only level of government without a mechanism for citizens to deal with the conduct of elected officials between elections, Bradley said.
Other cities including London, Hamilton, Windsor and Lambton Shores in the county’s north end have an Integrity Commission on retainer.
In Lambton Shores, London lawyer Greg Levine was hired in 2013 amid controversy over the dismissal of the municipality’s CAO and the way a vacancy on council was filled.
At Bradley’s request, city council agreed on Jan. 19 to ask for a staff report that’s expected back within 45 days.
And, when Lambton County council meets in Wyoming on Feb. 4, Bradley intends to ask for a similar staff report.