Brighton council’s problems a sign of much bigger issues for municipal government

There is so much wrong at Brighton council it is difficult to know where to start.

First, this is a clear case where the current climate of disrespect toward government and public service is made crystal clear. For decades, right-wing ideologists have pushed the notion of government as a business, not a public service. It completely distorts the notion of governance and the function of all levels of government.

Public service is not a business, period. Mayor Mark Walas admits he is used to having the final decision. Sorry, but that notion went out with monarchs as rulers.  We live in a democracy (certainly under siege), but it still means decisions are collective and action/direction comes from council as whole, not individuals. But don’t feel bad; Toronto Mayor Rob Ford suffers from the same delusion.

Next, the petty feud between councillors Craig Kerr and John Martinello is beyond comprehension. Council is not a schoolyard. Grow up. Nuff said.

What might be more disturbing though is the notion of the politics of conflict. Many right-wing ideologues thrive in an environment where political opponents are considered targets to be crushed. Collaboration and co-operation are signs of weakness, rather than strengths. This is an approach famous in American politics that is gaining strength in Canada, as witnessed in Toronto and Ottawa. The recent release of a video campaign to undermine Liberal interim leader Bob Rae is an excellent example, but only one of many.

Finally, this incident is an example of small town politics. In rural areas, where there is little oversight, small councils are able to do extraordinary things without penalty. The horror stories from ratepayers when they appear before municipal councils are hair-raising. The disrespect is often palpable. Time limits are placed on presenters. Restrictions on speaking, content and dialogue are often legislated. Then, presenters who are in opposition rarely are heard and their concerns barely acted upon.

Brighton council needs to act swiftly and definitively to correct its situation. However, it will mean a major cultural shift, not just more procedures and processes. But it is a canary in the coalmine. The Ontario government needs to strengthen its oversight of municipal government, one of the most fundamental and most direct forms of governance if it hopes to maintain a health democracy.

Toronto lawyer Fred Deans, acting as the integrity commissioner for the town, submitted a report on March 16, saying a spate of emails sent by Mayor Mark Walas and John Martinello went beyond the legislated mandate of a member of council as spelled out in the Municipal Act and the town’s Code of Conduct.

Councillor Craig Kerr filed the complaint with the commissioner back in October after two employees said there were incidents were council members were harassing them. Residents and former politicians appeared before council pressing them to take action. At the time, the mayor told those concerned that efforts had already been made to resolve the conflicts the previous spring.

There was even talk of the town staff unionizing in order to protect themselves.

The report states the problem centres around a long-standing conflict between Martinello and Craig, a relationship going on before both were on council. The commissioner said this is behind the Code of Conduct breeches.

Martinello, a first-term councillor, was sending lengthy emails to staff with questions from constituents, trying to direct the work of staff, according to the report. This was interpreted as his attempts to overburden staff rather than acting in the interest of ratepayers, the commissioner said.

“This is micromanagement. It is not what is intended in the legislation,” the report states.

Staff undertakes the work of council, not councillors individually; the report goes on to explain.

The mayor breeched the code when he started negotiating the purchase of a truck via email rather than following the purchasing bylaw process. The commissioner states it was done with good intentions, but was beyond his powers.

The report comes down hard on council’s lack of leadership and conflict of interest.

What is most shocking is the section where the commissioner recounts the interview held with staff and council members. Often, people stated, “We are dysfunctional”.

The conclusions are interesting, too. The lack of public sector experience is one. Next, the personal prejudices of council members, who brought their petty dislikes into the council chambers. Then, there was the abuse of staff through micromanaging tasks, clearly demonstrating a lack of respect for the public service. Finally, there is an obvious lack of transparency.

Notably, the commissioner asked to extend his job for five years. Next, it suggests training for staff and council on process and procedures. It calls for the end of micromanaging tasks and a team-building program for council and staff.

The use of email should be restricted, the report recommends and there should not be a penalty imposed on those involved.

There is so much wrong it is difficult to know where to start.

First, this is a clear case where the current climate of disrespect toward government and public service is made crystal clear. For decades, right-wing ideologists have pushed the notion of government as a business, not a public service. It completely distorts the notion of governance and the function of all levels of government.

Public service is not a business, period. Walas admits he is used to having the final decision. Sorry, but that notion went out with monarchs as rulers.  We live in a democracy (certainly under siege), but it still means decisions are collective and action/direction comes from council as whole, not individuals. But don’t feel bad; Toronto Mayor Rob Ford suffers from the same delusion.

Next, the petty feud between Craig and Martinello is beyond comprehension. Council is not a schoolyard. Grow up. Nuff said.

What might be more disturbing though is the notion of the politics of conflict. Many right-wing ideologues thrive in an environment where political opponents are considered targets to be crushed. Collaboration and co-operation are signs of weakness, rather than strengths. This is an approach famous in American politics that is gaining strength in Canada, as witnessed in Toronto and Ottawa. The recent release of a video campaign to undermine Liberal interim leader Bob Rae is an excellent example, but only one of many.

Finally, this incident is an example of small town politics. In rural areas, where there is little oversight, small councils are able to do extraordinary things without penalty. The horror stories from ratepayers when they appear before municipal councils are hair-raising. The disrespect is often palpable. Time limits are placed on presenters. Restrictions on speaking, content and dialogue are often legislated. Then, presenters who are in opposition rarely are heard and their concerns barely acted upon.

Brighton council needs to act swiftly and definitively to correct its situation. However, it will mean a major cultural shift, not just more procedures and processes. But it is a canary in the coalmine. The Ontario government needs to strengthen its oversight of municipal government, one of the most fundamental and most direct forms of governance if it hopes to maintain a health democracy.

  • Deborah O’Connor

    Have been following the antics in Brighton for months, their Council has reached the heights of inexcusable stupidity in passing their budget the way they did. According to Joyce Cassin in Northumberland Today, it was buried in Minutes of the Committee of the Whole and until one Councillor asked, it was unknown to them that they were indeed passing the budget, just moments after receiving public comment. It was a slap in the face to both the Mayor, who had asked them to wait for his return, and the citizens who wasted their time providing comments.

    If this Council isn’t an advertisement for getting rid of lower tier municipalities, I don’t know what is. Not that I advocate doing this, but clearly something has to be done and the idea of throwing out this gang of incompetents is rather appealing.