Woolwich & Wellesley Township's Local Community Newspaper | Elmira, Ontario, Canada
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Real accountability is a large part of earning the public’s trust

Woolwich Coun. Scott McMillan has taken the wrong tack in defending council’s decision to avoid acting on recommendations from its integrity commissioner.

Had the issues raised about Coun. Murray Martin’s conduct been limited to absenteeism or being rude to a member of the public, council would still have had to act on the commissioner’s report, if only to recognize the process. That Martin was also found to have prejudged an issue before council – in this case, the Capital Paving application for a gravel pit near Maryhill – makes the investigations all the more important.

Quite simply, councillors are to remain open-minded on issues  before them. They’re not to fetter their discretion beforehand, lest they undermine the democratic process.

McMillan’s proclamation that councillors shouldn’t be exacting vengeance on each other was correct, but that was hardly the point of recent discussions in wake of the integrity commissioner’s reports: Martin was found to be in violation of the code of conduct, recommendations were issued and it was incumbent to act on them. That’s not vengeance, but due process.

His assertion that it wasn’t council’s place to hold Martin accountable was completely wrong. It’s precisely part of the job, as there is not a oversight body to which council reports. It’s supposed to police itself.

Sure, there is some level accountability in elections every four years, but the ballot box is not the place to act on in-office transgressions.

The integrity commissioner is in place to serve as a conduit for public concerns and complaints about council or its members. If the commissioner’s findings are to be ignored or downplayed, what’s the point of having the outlet in the first place? And what message does that send to the public?

As the saying goes, justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. Through its inaction, Woolwich council has thus far been seen to be doing … not much. As such, council is falling down on the job, and serving to undermine the public’s faith in the system, especially where accountability is concerned.

The Woolwich situation is a microcosm of a years-long decline in trust in governments and other organizations. Politicians and bureaucrats often lead the downward charge.

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, for instance, shows Canadians feel leadership is failing, a particularly damning comment given the ongoing pandemic.

“Government leaders, CEOs and religious leaders are not trusted to do what is right. Instead, we’re seeing Canadians look to experts and those that are local – like people in their community – to help tackle the issues that matter most to them. In fact, 50% of respondents worry that business leaders are purposely trying to mislead them, and 46% believe the same about government leaders – this is a wake-up call for leaders, who need to take action to build trust amongst their stakeholders,” the report notes.

Such reports echo comments from Canadians who are disengaged from politics: “Politicians are concerned for their own interests.” “They don’t really care what people want.”

Canada’s system of democratic representation is faltering if a majority of Canadians do not believe their interests are well represented by their elected representatives. That’s true even if Canadians are generally happy with our form of democracy in comparison to alternatives.

Canadians believe their elected representatives are not accountable and don’t pay attention to what they think. Partisanship plays a big role there – the party line trumps representation.

We suffer, I’ve noted on many an occasion, from a dearth of good leaders. Even passable ones.

That’s true from the federal government right on down to the local level.

This is not about charisma or the ability to give rousing speeches, though that is a selling feature for far too many voters. No, proper governance means looking out for the public good rather than the interests of the a few, whether that’s the donors, the lobbyists or the self-serving politicians and bureaucrats themselves.

All of the parties hoping for something, anything to stick – none more desperately than the incumbent. Unfortunately, instead of dismissing all of it as useless vote-buying nonsense, we give credence to the endless stream of promises, half-truths and blatant lies – again, out of one mouth more than others.

The result? We end up with much less than we deserve, in part because we like to think we make intellectual choices, using our brains, but invariably default to our guts and our hearts.

Ideally, the goings-on – from Woolwich to Ottawa – will prompt more of us to take note that democracy is under attack, a problem that goes well beyond electioneering and corruption. The fact that many of us can’t even be bothered to vote – fewer than 60 per cent at the federal level, which typically generates the highest turnout – does not bode well for democratic reforms, however.

The goal should be the reinvention of democracy. Well, really, restoring democracy to its original intent: widespread and decentralized decision-making in the public good rather than the top down, hierarchical structure prevalent today.

The only way things are going to change is through the political will to push for true accountability. The politicians won’t do it, however, unless we force them to: they’re happy with a self-serving system that allows unfettered access to the cookie jar for themselves and their financial backers.

Quite simply, politicians have no interest in tightening up the rules to eliminate self-interest as a motivation for decision making among elected officials and bureaucrats. They’ll talk a good game, especially in opposition, but really want to keep their options open – they won’t even entertain rules to keep politicians from lying, on the hustings or otherwise.

Politicians write the rules for themselves. They prefer no rules, but failing that they draft vague rules with no enforcement. If there must be enforcement, then there are no penalties for breaking the rules.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

Enter your email to subscribe. Unsubscribe anytime. We may send you promotional messages.
Please read our privacy policy.

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  1. It’s very interesting and suspect that a media outlet owned and run by Joe and Patrick Merlihan always back Patrick’s position on council issues. It makes one wonder about the integrity and transparency of the Observer. No other Councillor has the power and editorial oprinion behind them that Patrick does. Has there ever been an editorial or comments made that are critical of Patrick’s view? Does the Merlihan family discuss and set the policy they want imposed then have Patrick vote that way at Council and support it in editorials and stories? Something isn’t sitting right here. Only one side of the story is presented, the Merlihan side. Is the Observeer trying to influence ot inform their readers?

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