After yet another in-camera debate about Matt Whitman's conduct, mayor
Mike Savage is eager to explore hiring an integrity commissioner at city hall
“I’m prepared to revisit that,” Savage told reporters after Tuesday’s council meeting. “I think it may be something we need to do so that we can get an impartial person to give us advice.”
An integrity commissioner would conduct investigations every time a breach is reported in the municipality's code of conduct. Similar positions already exist in Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton.
The idea was previously floated back in November
by Harbourview–Burnside–Dartmouth East representative Tony Mancini. But the councillor's request for a staff report—which would've included multiple ways to bolster HRM's code of conduct—was ripped apart by his colleagues
who called it personally insulting.
It was during that same November meeting
that council last met in-camera to discuss public complaints made against Matt Whitman. The councillor had earned scorn weeks earlier after telling TV news cameras it was only possible to be racist to caucasians and “negroes,”
but not Mexicans.
This week's in-camera debate about Whitman originated with the councillor retweeting a known ethno
-nationalist group who was upset about HRM's decision to temporarily remove the statue of Edward Cornwallis.
Whitman subsequently deleted the tweet and blocked the account, but has since told reporters he stands by the group's message
that “European history and peoples are being dismantled.”
The Hammonds Plains–St
councillor refused to participate in Tuesday's in-camera debate
dealing with complaints against himself, Waye Mason and Shawn Cleary because it could not be held in public.
Offered the chance to bring the agenda item solely about himself into public discussion, the councillor declined.
His colleagues ultimately voted 12-3 to censure Whitman; removing him from his committee, agency and board work for a period of three months.
It’s the first time this council has taken such disciplinary action against one of its members.
“Now, let’s be honest, it doesn’t cost him any money,” cautions Savage. “We don’t get paid to be on committees here on council. So the length is almost immaterial.”
Savage tells reporters there was “a lot of goodwill” expressed towards councillor Whitman during the two-and-a-half hour in-camera discussion, “but there is frustration that we end up back here too often.”
“Nobody wants to muzzle councillor Whitman,” says Savage. “He’s a person with his own views. But there was a feeling that there needed to be some kind of a sanction because we’ve done this before.”
The current code of conduct for municipal officials
says the public expects “the highest standards of professional conduct from members elected to local government,” and that those political figures are to treat everyone “with dignity, understanding and respect” and “observe a high standard of professionalism.”
The document was created in 2013, in part due to an incident two year prior when former councillor Reg Rankin made inappropriate remarks to a woman
at a Halifax Regional Police function. Since then, it has predominantly been used to address Whitman's behaviour.
If someone is found in breach of the code, council
can censure the accused by ordering an apology, for them to attend counselling or withdrawing the councillor in question from any committee appointments. And that's it.
Speaking last November about Mancini's motion, councillor Steve Craig warned his colleagues that under the current code “there are no meaningful consequences if somebody doesn’t want to accept other people’s views of their behaviour, pure and simple.”
Whitman told reporters earlier in the day he would stand by what council decided. He then immediately contradicted himself by saying he would not issue another public apology
if ordered to do so, and in fact, regretted previous public apologies he's had to make in his short political career.
“I really want to work with councillor Whitman, as I want to work with all my councillors, to have a process where we work together,” says Savage. “We have to disagree—that’s the whole point of democracy, is that you disagree on things. You have to find a way to disagree in a way that isn’t disagreeable. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
With that in mind, should any councillor wish to refloat the idea of an integrity commissioner, the mayor says this time he'll vote for it.