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Holding municipal leaders accountable for workplace harassment: could proposed new laws help?

March 21, 2024

A city councillor makes ongoing demeaning comments to female employees and job applicants. The city’s integrity commissioner publishes reports finding him guilty of serious sexual harassment. City council votes unanimously to ask him to resign. He refuses.

About 400 kilometres away, a city councillor resigns after a council colleague allegedly keys her car in the city-owned parking lot – 8 times. The alleged perpetrator is never investigated but files a defamation lawsuit against the complainant.

Elsewhere, a third-party investigation finds a city councillor sexually harassed and assaulted an employee. The councillor is required to undergo training, but still serves out the nearly three years remaining in his term and runs again in the next election (he loses).

These stories aren’t hypothetical. They’ve all happened in municipalities right here in Ontario.

Most municipal elected officials are dedicated, upstanding, and eager to do the best for their communities. And they recognize that their communities are best served when councils work collaboratively with municipal staff to deliver results. When staff and councillors treat one another with dignity, respect and consideration, everyone wins, especially the public.

But as these stories illustrate, that doesn’t always happen. Severe harassment can occur at the highest levels, and when it does, it’s essential to hold people accountable. Only through accountability can organizations:

  • protect vulnerable individuals from sometimes significant personal harm
  • prevent resignations and the loss of good talent, and
  • preserve the respect and collaboration needed to drive forward important public projects and serve the municipality’s residents

The challenge is that our laws often don’t provide the means to hold elected officials accountable for bad behaviour. In fact, as the above stories show, even members of council who are found guilty of harassment by their municipality’s own integrity commissioner are able to keep their jobs and run for re-election.

But that might be about to change.

In response to advocacy from nonprofit groups and private member’s bills from opposition parties, the Ontario government is considering legal changes to strengthen the penalties for municipal elected officials who engage in harassment, sexual harassment, and other severe code of conduct violations. The Minister of Housing and Municipal Affairs has said the legislation could be in place as early as summer 2024.

While we don’t have details of the new law yet – the Minister says consultations with municipalities and the attorney general are still ongoing – some measures that advocacy groups recommend include mechanisms to remove council members from office or restrict their ability to run for re-election if they are found to engage in severe misconduct.

This may be an important tool for councils themselves who have sometimes lamented the difficulties in addressing harassment among their peers. Combatting workplace harassment is in everyone’s interest – no matter who the harasser might be.