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We need to talk

Presented by Stephanie Mackenzie-Smith and Erin Britnell
in Leadership
February, 2024

Sponsored by Western University Local Government Alumni Society

There is a great need to engage in difficult conversations. This became clear during the Western University Local Government Program Alumni Society conference in November.

In November, sector experts and municipal leaders from across Ontario came together to address some of the toughest issues facing municipalities today:

How do we tackle harassment and abuse by local leaders now that Bill 5, a private member’s bill addressing the issue, died at second reading?

What will the future look like for municipalities in a post-Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, 2022 era?

What’s ahead for regional governments in Ontario?

Throughout all these conversations, the same theme kept coming up over and over again: we need to talk. To navigate this ever-changing legislative landscape, we must have difficult conversations with our political leaders, communities, and each other.

Building Positive Council-Staff Relations

Bill 5, Stopping Harassment and Abuse by Local Leaders Act, 2023, is an Ontario private member’s bill that, if passed, would have amended the Municipal Act, 2001, and the City of Toronto Act, 2006, to require local codes of conduct for municipal councillors to include a requirement that they comply with workplace violence and harassment policies.

The bill’s amendments would also have permitted the removal of a council member from office through a court application by a local integrity commissioner following an investigation that found the councillor failed to comply with workplace violence or harrassment policies. However, Bill 5 failed to pass at second reading in May 2023 and is now dead.

In a panel discussion on Bill 5, City of Vaughan Integrity Commissioner Suzanne Craig addressed council codes of conduct. Craig said codes of conduct must be strong given that Bill 5 failed to pass.

Other panellists included:

  • Dr. Peter Constantinou of York University
  • Michelle Smibert, deputy mayor of Thames Centre
  • Emily McIntosh from the advocacy group Women of Ontario Say No

Together, panellists reinforced the need to prevent issues before they start through proper training, council orientation, and open, honest conversations at all levels.

Changing Legislative Framework for Municipalities

The conference’s panel on the changing legislative framework for municipalities was moderated by Western University’s Zack Taylor, and panelists included:

  • Janice Baker, former CAO of Peel
  • Sabine Matheson, Strategy Corp
  • David Arbuckle, AMCTO’s executive director
  • Sandra Datars Bere, CAO of St. Thomas

Baker spoke on the erosion of trust and the apparent double-standard that exists for provincial-municipal transparency standards for decision making. The panelists also addressed the importance of trust and relationship building, particularly around the process of creating and implementing change.

Sense of Community and Positivity

Rick O’Connor, former city clerk of Ottawa, delivered his keynote address. Reflecting on his 35 years in public service, many shared appreciative nods as he discussed his “muniversal truths” and the importance of leading with courage and professionalism.

Many in the room felt uncertain about the changes facing the municipal sector. But there was a sense of community and positivity about navigating the complexities ahead.

This positivity was demonstrated during the previous night’s award ceremony, where Kimberley Kitteringham of the City of Markham and Megan MacLean of the City of Toronto were recognized for their abilities to collaborate and connect with their peers and communities.

So, let’s keep talking.  MW

Municipal World Executive and Essentials Plus Members: You might also be interested in Mark Mullaly’s article: Strong mayors: A race to the bottom?

Stephanie Mackenzie-Smith, MPA, is a professor, consultant, and the president of the Western Local Government Program Alumni Society.

Erin Britnell, MPA, is the incoming president of the Western Local Government Program Alumni Society and is an experienced municipal leader and innovator.

Related resource materials:

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