Wednesday, July 24, 2024
July 24, 2024

Trust Council advances code of conduct

Concerns among elected trustees in the Islands Trust area have led to plans for updating that body’s official code of conduct, as members look for a balance that might ensure trustees feel free to voice opinions without feeling threatened. 

The Islands Trust Governance Committee voted during a special electronic meeting Monday, June 24 to advance draft language and recommend a select committee of the Islands Trust Council (ITC) develop the document. And even as committee members expressed philosophical objections to any structural limitations on speech, the sense in the room seemed to be that many were finding the tenor of debate increasingly uncomfortable.  

“This is trying to acknowledge that [discomfort], without trying to curtail free speech and constructive criticism,” said Gambier Island trustee Kate-Louise Stamford. “I think that’s a fine line to tread. But don’t underestimate how low the discourse can get.” 

Updates for the code of conduct were built from extensive examination of other governments and municipalities, and include draft language to make clear that neither staff nor the Islands Trust Council chair would be adjudicating any disputes — and that complaints that might initiate any processes can only stem from staff, trustees or Islands Trust Conservancy board appointees, not the public.  

The document lays out conduct expectations regarding personal interests, conduct in meetings, collection and handling of information, interactions with staff — and advisory bodies — as well as the use of social media and interactions with the public and traditional media. 

Staff also recommended such proceedings should be in a setting mostly open to the public. 

“The meeting should be closed as applicable, for receiving legal advice, for example,” said director of legislative services David Mar lor. “But everything else would then be done in open meetings. It’s politicians, our trustees, policing themselves; so that probably should be public.” 

Citing the wide spectrum of opinion inherent in such a body, ITC chair Peter Luckham said that there had “certainly” been numerous complaints over his time on the council, with mixed results. 

“Often the action that the complainant is anticipating is significantly less than what is prescribed,” said Luckham. “This is a valuable conversation, to figure out how we can land on a place that supports a respectful workplace and respectful dialogue.” 

Lasqueti Island trustee Tim Peterson, who also chairs Salt Spring Island’s Local Trust Committee, said while it was reasonable, for example, to have criticism about the contents of a report, it’s not reasonable to “start saying you’ve done a crappy job.” 

“I have witnessed some Trust Council behaviour,” said Peterson. “I can think of one really bad meeting last term where a trustee was named, and their approach to the particular problem at hand was called names as well. It was really dispiriting.”  

Peterson added that he felt many people struggle to keep themselves at the level of speaking to issues and ideas, rather than to personalities.  

“A lot of folks don’t have practice at that,” he said.  

Gambier Island trustee Joe Bernardo said he preferred to keep the focus on outright bullying, abuse or intimidation, saying he was uneasy with the approach of “attempting to manage the speech of trustees through prohibitions.” 

“Discomfort is part of the game,” said Bernardo. “People aren’t here to agree, they’re here to work out things and then reach agreement. Robust debate isn’t comfortable.” 

And Salt Spring trustee Jamie Harris, as he wondered why ITC needed to “line up” with other municipalities on matters like this “but not on housing,” asked for examples of specific instances of trustees feeling they couldn’t speak their minds without fear of being disparaged. 

“When it comes to the ‘unsafe’ and ‘uncomfortable’ idea, how do we describe that specifically?” asked Harris. “I’ve had another trustee this term tell me that trustees and staff feel unsafe just being in my presence. What are we talking about? It’s not my fault I am the way I am. I’m not threatening anybody, but when I hear this talk it’s very concerning to me.” 

“I’m not saying any one person, I’m just saying that it does come up quite frequently,” said Stamford. “I think this [code of conduct] is a way of framing our conversations in a more political realm, rather than focusing on aggressively winning a discussion and a decision.” 

If the Executive Committee and ITC agree, the next step for the code of conduct will be the latter electing members to a select committee to develop the document, which would then return to ITC for approval.  

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