Changing The Culture At Council

“Disruptive, disrespectful and unparliamentary behaviour reflects poorly on city council, and undermines public confidence in our ability to govern.”

So Toronto City Council speaker Frances Nunziata admonished her colleagues after their raucous November meeting. Her warning could have referred to any of another dozen occasions.

Such behaviour is worse than impolite – it is unproductive.

Part of the friction at Council is caused by the unwillingness and inability of Mayor Ford’s administration to share its agenda, be open to dialogue and allow for give-and-take. Core issues such as labour agreements and the budget, critical to the success of any administration, warrant careful attention. But other opportunities abound to engage constructively, urge support for challenging issues, and earn loyalty.

Before being stripped of his ability to make appointments, Mayor Ford chose to forego opportunities to reach out across boundaries to select committee chairs and allow them some flexibility for initiatives. Of almost equal value, he could have confronted emerging challenges with task forces and created public advocates as Mayors Lastman and Miller both did effectively.

As well, his predecessors built loyalty among Council’s ranks by bringing mayoral influence to bear on a myriad of local issues: a mayoral announcement here, asking staff to expedite an initiative there, and galvanizing support at Council for local measures that helped colleagues deliver for the communities they represented.

These quiet, incremental approaches to building collaboration are not meant to achieve unanimity. But they demonstrate respect, foster collegiality, and allow a complex government to progress toward its goals. Ideally, they can help ensure directions are well-considered and prevent embarrassment such as Council overstepping its authority on a shark-fin soup ban, and needing to reverse its plastic bag ban.

Much of the raucous behaviour and associated dysfunction at Council is rooted in having a Mayor whose approach has been to replace quiet influence and consensus-building with bullying and intimidation. But Members must share in the blame for perpetuating disrespect, tolerating poor manners, not paying attention and disregarding others. During the meeting for which the Speaker admonished Members, for example, one Councillor started screaming and refused to leave the Chamber, the Mayor saw fit to call Councillors “corrupt,” a comment for which he enjoyed apologizing, and another Councillor explained he really hadn’t called another member a “moron”. And on it goes.

For this misbehaviour there is an effective disciplinary tool, although it has not yet been used. The Discreditable Conduct section of Council’s Code of Conduct reads, “All members of Council have a duty to treat members of the public, one another, and staff appropriately and without abuse …“ Penalties for non-compliance range from a reprimand to a suspension of pay for up to 90 days.

To date, in spite of its harmful dysfunctionality, Council does not have the will, nor the Speaker the ability, nor the Mayor the interest, to put in place a complaints-based procedure, adjudicated by the Integrity Commissioner, to quickly and effectively end noxious behaviour by hitting offenders in their paycheques.

For a Mayor who wants to change a dysfunctional Council to one that works again, the tools are available. First, by quietly building loyalty and support for the administration, then by leading by example in restoring civility and respect to the public discourse, then by instituting a procedure with effective sanctions to deal with those who chronically abuse and disrupt.

Through a combination of carrot and stick, Council can be changed for the better and earn back the respect of Torontonians as a civil and productive institution.

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