(Citizen file)

(Citizen file)

Editorial: Decision could chill speech among councillors

Councillors need to be able to passionately argue points of view and strongly held beliefs

Will councillors now be afraid to say what they think?

This was the question that bubbled to the surface following an investigation, report and decision that has led to North Cowichan’s Kate Marsh being admonished and docked pay (for a full year) over what seems to be a rather trivial (if ill-advised) email she sent to councillors and the mayor following a marathon meeting. (Note to all, it’s never a great idea to send off an email in the heat of the moment, especially if you’re tired. Sleep on it.)

An investigator hired by North Cowichan found that Marsh’s email violated council’s code of conduct and was “disrespectful” towards Mayor Al Siebring and “highly inflammatory”.

Another connected allegation regarding a conversation between Marsh and a third party that nobody can remember clearly was determined to be unfounded.

So it’s all down to the email.

Now, we know from disrespectful and inflammatory. As a newspaper, you probably cannot even imagine the types of communications we receive from unhappy people on a regular basis. It would make your hair curl.

While Marsh’s email was not the most diplomatic thing we’ve ever read (and she did, in fact, attempt to apologize for it), it’s really pretty tame. The offending bits? Referring to the response to a letter to council as a “cavalier attitude”, which the mayor took as referencing himself, though the email does not make that distinction, and a final paragraph stating, “So sad that email was singled out as insignificant, and only from one person basically calling all those named in the email liars.”

Yes, seriously, that’s really all there is to it. The term “highly inflammatory” seems a bit of a misnomer.

The real concern with the whole fiasco should be the potentially chilling effect this decision could have on councillors in the future and their ability to talk and write to one another in plain language.

Councillors need to be able to passionately argue points of view and strongly held beliefs. That’s what we elect them for, to stand up for their values. If they go a little too far every now and then in that passion we would hope their colleagues would be willing to forgive a small lapse without grudges, formal (costly) investigations and sanctions.

A code of conduct always sounds great in theory. Particularly when you see how some councils are completely dysfunctional due to infighting and rampant disrespect, not just for one another, but for the public they are there to serve.

It becomes concerning, however, when it stifles councillors’ ability to communicate clearly and without fear.

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