With respect to the municipal code of conduct acknowledgement form known as 'Form 3', I wouldn't sign it either given provision 'E' in section 5.3.1 of the Advisory Committee and Volunteer Code of Conduct - I simply would not sign it if I were asked to. Not the way it is currently written at least.
In saying that, let's be clear, I don't think that the municipality is intentionally trying to slap a 'gag order' on everyday citizens who volunteer their time to be part of a municipal advisory committee, and I don't think they even see the language used in the code of conduct as being restrictive, but it is.
Volunteers will refrain from public criticism that questions the professional reputation, competence, and credibility of Council, other volunteers, staff, or any other person.
That's a gag order folks, plain and simple. That said, many municipalities use similar language in their codes of conduct for volunteers, but that doesn't make it right.
What the language used in the code of conduct document says, is that if you are a member of one of the four municipal advisory committees, and you are witness to incompetency, injustice, or worse, corruption, you are ordered to keep your trap shut.
Never, ever would I sign such a document without a change to the wording.
The intent of the provision makes perfect sense – everyone should be treated with respect and dignity, so there's no room for name calling, there's no place for wild, unsubstantiated accusations against council or staff. That makes complete sense, but I'm sorry, if I'm witness to acts of incompetence, or unfair practices, or a host of other injustices there's no way I will be told to zip my lips.
Granted, there is a formal complaint process included in the code of conduct policy, including a two-page form that can be filled out should trouble arise, and you have an issue with the conduct of a member of municipal staff, council, or a fellow committee member, but should your complaint not be resolved to your satisfaction, if you've signed that 'Form 3' you are obligated to stay quiet about it.
There's a fine line that council and the municipality must walk, and it isn't an easy line to walk. Municipal staff, members of council, and citizens who are part of municipal committees should be protected from unwarranted public attacks by volunteer committee members, they must be protected from wild accusations, and they need to be ensured that their reputations will not be unfairly maligned as a result of everyday municipal business, but at the same time, freedom of speech and expression must also be preserved.
To use a somewhat silly example (bear with me), if you were getting on a plane and were told before boarding that you had to sign a form agreeing to not make any public complaints that might question the professional reputation, competence and credibility of the pilot or the flight crew, would you sign it? What if the pilot appeared to have been drinking? What if a flight attendant made a racist remark? Would you agree to stay silent?
What if your doctor required you to sign such a document before agreeing to book an appointment for you?
Would you have your car serviced at a garage that required you to sign a document stating that you won't make any public complaints about them?
Would you sign such a document if it was required by a school where your children attend? What if a teacher turned out to be a predator, or what if a teacher was verbally abusive to your child and you received no satisfaction via the established complaints procedures?
Granted, these are wildly unrelated examples, but I hope they drive home the point that in so many areas in our lives we would never, ever give up our right to speak out if we witness something that is wrong, so why would someone who wants to sit on a municipal advisory committee that holds public meetings, that publishes public reports, sign away their right to speak out if they feel the need?
Again, I don't think that council or municipal staff have intentionally tried to strip volunteers of their right to speak freely and express themselves; their intention has been to protect staff, council, and volunteers from unwarranted attacks on their character, unnecessary and potentially untrue accusations, or just plain nastiness – but folks, if you're in a building and you see fire, you yell FIRE! Not to do so is just as irresponsible as setting the fire yourself.
Obviously the municipality needs to protect staff, members of council, and volunteers from unwarranted or untrue public attacks on their character and credibility, but that can't come at the cost of stifling free speech and expression.
I believe that the fix could be as simple as a few words in a revised policy:
Volunteers will refrain from public criticism that questions the professional reputation, competence, and credibility of Council, other volunteers, staff, or any other person without first seeking resolution through the established complaints procedure.
That approach would retain the emphasis on the importance of maintaining decorum, and ensuring that any issues that might crop up would first be tested by the municipal complaints process, as they should be; failing adequate resolution, the volunteer hasn't signed away their right to speak out publicly.
The revised statement above – I would sign.