Recently, concerns were expressed that local politicians in Moncton and Sackville would be stifled from speaking their minds on social media because of new codes of conduct. In Saint John, some local politicians are more interested in protecting themselves than adhering to any notion of accountability.
In February, Saint John Common Council voted to spend up to $10,000 to “examine ways to close the gaps in provincial legislation regarding code of conduct complaints.”
The decision to review the code of conduct came after council had received (and filed away) numerous complaints from citizens against Mayor Don Darling and one prominent councillor over the previous seven months, claiming it did not have the authority to police itself.
With the COVID-19 pandemic having ground Saint John City Hall’s bureaucracy to a near standstill, the issue raised in February has yet to be resolved.
Lack of enforcement mechanism
Citizens in Saint John have been challenging violations of the city’s Code of Conduct since members of Common Council agreed to a code of conduct policy in August 2017.
At the time the Mayor had already begun using the trademarked City of Saint John corporate logo on a personal Facebook page and website without permission. He would continue to use the logo to help promote his private GrowSJ political initiative for almost two years before the Saint John Citizens Coalition called him on it.
Darling was undoubtedly emboldened by the knowledge that the 2017 Code of Conduct policy wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. The values that he agreed to uphold were all but rendered null and void by the absence of enforcement procedures, as hammered home in clause 15.2:
“There are no formal procedures placed in the regulation regarding the handling of complaints regarding potential Code of Conduct breaches. Rather, the Code is ‘self-enforced’ and considered as a document that sets out expectations in terms of the conduct of members of the council.”
However, in July 2018, the provincial Local Governance Act was changed to require municipal councils throughout New Brunswick to ‘upgrade’ their code of conduct policies to bylaws with stated values to which members of council agree to adhere, including the acceptable use of city property, resources and services, communication tools and social media.
Unfortunately, the province made the mistake of assuming that local councillors would act responsibly and include enforcement procedures in their bylaw. In Saint John, they did not. Nor were any signatures of agreement required, as they were in the earlier policy. Thus, it was easy for members of Saint John Common Council to let themselves off the hook in July 2019 when they unanimously adopted bylaw LG-5, the new Code of Conduct for Elected Representatives.
Violation of the new Code of Conduct
After the new bylaw was adopted, the Saint John Citizens Coalition, a grassroots political organization that attempts to do its civic duty and ensure municipal government is held accountable, requested a review of GrowSJ, the mayor’s personal political hobbyhorse that he was running out of his City Hall office.
City Manager John Collin came back with a limited response stating that Darling had no permission to use the trademarked corporate logo on his GrowSJ Facebook page, website or event invitations and advertising.
While Collin declared that the mayor had not “misused public funds,” Darling himself had already posted on his Facebook page that he had used city premises and some equipment and resources to organize his GrowSJ-sponsored Budgets and Beers events. This is a series of private campaign-style town halls in which he and Councillor David Merrithew, the chair of council’s finance committee, tried to get people to rally behind their efforts to get a provincial bailout.
Collin did not recommend any action be taken against the mayor for his misuse of city property or resources. However, without fanfare, the mayor replaced the familiar logo (a Loyalist with a spyglass peering over the horizon) with a new design that resembles a blossoming potato popping out of a hand.
For Darling, allegations that he had violated the Code of Conduct were nothing more than an “unwelcome distraction” from all the hard work he was doing on behalf of the people of Saint John. The mayor again boldly proclaimed: “I really pride myself on being guided by principles and values.”
Social media mayor
Darling is Saint John’s first social media mayor. Indeed, he has admitted that he spends up to two hours a day rallying his base of support by tweeting, publishing selfies on Instagram, sharing Facebook posts, as well as producing vlogs and podcasts in which he often waxes on about his various unfulfilled visions for the city. Recently, and after announcing that he would not stand for re-election, he said he would stop doing so for ‘his health’.
Whenever he posted anything on his personal Facebook page, his primary method of communicating with the public as mayor, there was, and still is, an inevitable stream of ‘likes’ and unquestioning flattery and praise, reminiscent of a “cult of the personality”: “We love you, Don!” “You’re the best, Don” “Keep up the great work, Don!” The tributes are generally from the same people time and time again, the most fervent members of the mayor’s unofficial “fan club.”
One sees few negative comments on Darling’s personal Facebook page because the mayor permanently blocks citizens from participating if they have a different political viewpoint or, as he puts it, if they “bully me.” Full disclosure: I was banned for portraying him as a hypocrite in a mock radio ad.
Shortly after the city’s new Code of Conduct bylaw was signed in 2019, Darling sparked an inflammatory exchange on his personal Facebook page that resulted in the spread of hatred and at least one threat of physical violence against a citizen.
After providing answers to questions about GrowSJ that the city manager was still in the process of reviewing, Darling deliberately shifted the focus to the Saint John Citizens Coalition and, in particular, to its founder Randall Goodwin who had signed the letter that led to the review of GrowSJ.
Making it clear on his personal Facebook page that he was speaking “As your mayor…”, Mr. Darling’s post riled up his supporters to such an extent that their normally docile love notes suddenly took on a more ominous tone. Mr. Goodwin, who had done nothing more than send a respectful letter to Common Council, was called an “idiot,” a “bully” and a “shithead.” Others involved with the Saint John Citizens Coalition were dismissed as being “quacks,” “twits” and “nutjobs.”
A threat of physical violence against Goodwin followed. “I’d gladly slap his teeth down his throat,” wrote Darling supporter Eric Robichaud. The mayor watched the exchange on his Facebook page in real-time and did nothing, except to intervene on one occasion, not to chastise his over enthusiastic supporters, but to block a citizen who had come to Goodwin’s defence.
Darling allowed the comments to fester on his page for months, seemingly unconcerned about the possible consequences of inciting hatred and violence while desperately pleading with people from other parts of the country and the world to move to a “welcoming and inclusive community” that he calls Saint Awesome, a city that has lost 30 per cent of its population in recent years because of high taxes and water rates, industrial pollution and the highest rate of poverty in Canada.
Code of Conduct is “useless”
Not long after, Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary told the Telegraph-Journal that the code of conduct is inadequate, although she failed to say why, in that case, she voted to adopt it. “The code of conduct is really a useless document because there’s nothing in there that gives us any authority to do anything against another member of council,” she said. “Our hands are tied.”
Clearly, McAlary was right when she said the Code of Conduct is useless. It is useless because it was designed to be useless. Rather than strengthening the original code of conduct policy by turning it into a bylaw, our local elected representatives did an end run around the province and weakened it even further.
Clearly, politicians cannot police themselves. We need an independent integrity commissioner to ensure that locally elected representatives are not only guided by principles and values but are held responsible when they fail to adhere to those principles and values.
Doug James is a former journalist with the CBC, CNN, CNBC, and other media outlets. He has a Masters’ degree in journalism from Carleton University and has taught media law and ethics at Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario.