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School trustees take conduct beefs behind closed doors

Hamilton public board’s new code will keep probes, reports secret

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

 A new Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board code of conduct will keep investigations into any alleged ethical breaches by trustees entirely behind closed doors unless there is a formal call to impose sanctions.

The new rules, passed unanimously by trustees on Monday, allow for informal and formal investigations of alleged violations, but both will be done in private and any written reports to trustees will also remain confidential.

Even if an informal investigation determines a trustee has broken the code of conduct, it will remain confidential as long as the offender agrees to “remedial measures” to correct the behaviour, like a warning, apology or completing a training course.

The only time the public will get a glimpse of the process will be if a formal investigation leads to a vote on a recommended sanction, which can include censure or barring the trustee from attending board or committee meetings for a period of time.

In that case, trustees will deliberate behind closed doors and then vote in open session, recording the reasons for their decision in the meeting minutes.

The accused trustee can be on hand for the secret deliberations but is barred from participating or trying to sway the vote.

That’s a big change from how the board dealt with Mountain trustee Laura Peddle three years ago, when she was accused of breaking privacy rules on a secret December 2009 decision to exclude Westmount from an upper-city high school closure review.

Back then, trustees voted publicly to initiate the investigation, had the Toronto lawyer who investigated the matter present her findings in open session and made the $50,000 probe’s report public.

They ultimately found Peddle had breached the rules, but voted by a slim majority to not sanction her because their own law firm concluded the closed-door Westmount decision should have been made public in 2009.

Board chair Jessica Brennan said the main thrust of the new rules is to keep the process informal and allow a trustee to correct what may be an innocent mistake, like telling a principal about a land matter that is appropriately confidential.

She said a formal investigation will be “very rare” and the new code deliberately tries to avoid a repeat of the Peddle imbroglio, when trustees had no process and created one as they went along.

“I think we would have really done that completely differently,” Brennan said. “Experience taught us a lot, but if you look at the code of conduct, there’s so much room for informal, chatting about it,” she said.

 “It really is about informal and the other one (with Peddle) had no informal elements to it. We got serious very quickly, so I really like this process much better.”

Besides respecting confidentiality, the new code requires trustees to maintain the dignity and integrity of their office, respect differing views, uphold decisions of the board and not use their office for personal advantage.

They cannot, for instance, accept gifts from people or entities dealings with the board if a reasonable person would conclude it might influence their decisions.

Should an alleged breach occur, an investigation must take place within six months, but can’t be initiated within two months of a municipal election or before the first meeting of the new board after an election.

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