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Council adopts prohibition of Corporate Resources during an Election policy

by Sylene Argent    

During the Essex Council meeting on Tuesday, April 6, Council received the report, “Prohibition on the Use of Corporate Resources during an Election,” and further adopted the policy to replace the former document on the matter.

  Town Clerk Robert Auger said the intent of the new policy is to create better clarification as to what the prohibited uses of Town resources are for candidates during an election.

  It became apparent during the 2018 election, that the policy was vague in some respects and did not provide clear information to guide candidates’ actions, Auger said. “At certain points during the election, the Clerk or the Clerk’s Office, essentially had to use its best and reasonable efforts to interpret, in good faith, what was permitted and what was not permitted in regards to candidates and certain scenarios in which the potential use of corporate or Town resources were called into question.”

  It is the hope that this current policy will provide that enhanced clarity, but, at the same time, it is important to acknowledge that it is impossible to envision every possible scenario that may occur, he added.

  The new policy provides a much-more expansive definition of what the prohibited corporate resources are, Auger said.

  Corporate Resources include all Town facilities, in addition to property where Town events take place, regardless if the Town owns or is leasing the property.

  Town property includes prohibition of materials, such as town apparel, logo, slogans, or strategic objections. In addition, this includes recordings or broadcasts of Council meetings in relation to campaign-related purposed. The exception is officially adopted minutes of Council meetings.    

   “The concern would be that such recordings may be taken out of context for campaign purposes and cause confusion to the voter that those parts of the broadcast meetings… are reflective of those actual proceedings and what went on in those proceedings,” Auger explained.  

  The new policy, Auger added, prohibits the use of social media handles that belong to or are associated to the Town of Essex. Council members cannot use a town-issued phone or device to support campaign efforts. Though this was in the past policy, the new policy will allow the Town to audit or monitor such devices, if necessary.

  A new provision attached to the policy includes requirement that any and all information requests to attend meetings at the Town much be made directly to the CAO or Clerk. Town staff will have an obligation to report such requests by candidates to determine if such requests can be accommodated in accordance with the policy.

  There are also specific restrictions to services. As of August 1 of an election year, as it corresponds to the opening of the nomination process, Town media releases and advertising will not mention a specific name of a member of Council.

  With regards to enforcement, any complaints regarding alleged violations should be made to the Town’s Election Complaint Policy, which was previously Council-approved last fall. Through this, the Clerk will have the authority to review and attempt to resolve the issue. This will be determined on a case-by-case basis. It could include forfeiture of a town-issued device, removal or forfeiture of campaign materials.

  These are things being researched heading into the 2022 election. It could also include publication of violations on the Town website. 

The candidate will also be requested to sign an acknowledgement that they understand the policy and that they agree to indemnify the Town for any costs suffered that are associated to any breaches of the policy.

  Auger added the Clerk cannot issue fines or lay charges for offences. Only the Provincial Government has the authority to investigate and lay a charge for an offence that may have been committed.

  Councillor Joe Garon applauded Auger on his effort. He said the new policy has a lot more clarification. Not everyone plays by the rules, and when that happens, the consequence mut be known.

  The main problem, if a candidate uses a town logo in literature and sends it out, the damage is done at that point, Garon noted. Without the Clerk having the means to be able to make a candidate step down or forfeit their candidacy, there is not much that can be done about it. He sees there will still be enforcement.

  A back-and-fourth then took part between Councillor Shery Bondy and Mayor Larry Snively on the issue. When acknowledging Bondy wanted to speak to the issue, Snively said he had just read her social media post that indicated she was excited about the new policy.

  Bondy called a Point of Order. “Your conduct in these meetings matters and your treatment of me matters,” Bondy said.

  “Pardon me, Councillor, I am just reading what you posted,” Snively replied.

  “There’s a time and a place, Mr. Mayor,” Bondy responded. “Enough is enough.”

  “Enough is enough with you, Councillor, go ahead,” Snively responded.”

  Bondy said she is excited for the report because it was a long-time coming. “What happened during the last election from the stacks of emails of complaints, there was not an equal playing field in the last election.”

  Pictures in the Council Chambers, election signs with the Town Hall in the background, election literature with the Town logo in it, staff photocopying stacks of proxy votes for candidates to hand out, will not happen anymore, Bondy said.

  “I do agree that we do have to work on enforcement, but hopefully the calibre of candidates that we get in the next election will be higher and we won’t have to worry about this. This is a big step in restoring trust in the Town of Essex, in our elections,” Bondy said.

  Snively said he is also happy with the policy, noting at least magnetic signs will not allowed on vehicles before they are allowed, and people walking into advanced polls with jerseys on that vote for so-and-so.

  Councillor Kim Verbeek said it was needed, but she has the same concerns as Councillor Garon. She understands the Clerk’s hands are tied, but she would like a way to shame or fine the offender.

  Councillor Steve Bjorkman added the main take-a-way is clarity through the document. He said if the rules are broken, the offender can be called out on them.

  Councillor Vander Doelen said he was glad the policy was cleaned up, but doesn’t think it will change a lot. The policy will make is easier to determine who crossed the line and that will be useful, he said.