The Safe Surrey Coalition majority on council gave final approval to contentious amendments to the Council Code of Conduct Bylaw on Monday night, despite British Columbia’s ombudsperson Jay Chalke urging council not to.
Council voted on April 25 on the final adoption of an amendment to the Council Code of Conduct Bylaw that will put a moratorium on the city ethics commissioner processing any new complaints lodged against council members until after the Oct. 15 civic election, as of Tuesday, April 12.
The Safe Surrey Coalition majority had in previous readings cast its vote in favour, with councillors Jack Hundial, Linda Annis and Brenda Locke voting in opposition. Coun. Steven Pettigrew is on a leave of absence.
Locke and Annis voted against final approval. Hundial was absent.
The provincial ombudsperson investigates roughly 8,000 complaints each year related to local and provincial bodies such as government ministries, Crown corporations, hospitals, health authorities, public schools, colleges, universities, local governments and regional districts.
Chalke wrote an email to council on April 25 to express “concern” and “disappointment” that council did not include in amendments recommendations from the Surrey Ethics Commissioner Office (SECO) to have investigation reports considered in closed council only if permitted under the Community Charter, otherwise matters should be considered in open council.
The SECO also recommended, which was not included, that the Code of Conduct be amended “to make explicit that a summary of every investigation report will be made public, in accordance with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.”
While Chalke noted council is within its right to amend the bylaw, its decision to not consider amendments limiting the use of closed meetings to review investigation reports and ensure a summary report of each investigation is made public “undermines the very purpose of the Code of Conduct” in terms of public trust, and transparency.
“I am similarly disappointed in council’s decision to not approve the SECO recommendation concerning a moratorium on complaints in the period leading up to local government elections,” Chalke wrote to council.
“Rather council adopted a far more restrictive limitation on the public’s right to lodge a complaint with SECO starting April 12 of a general local election year.”
Chalke said he is “deeply concerned” that in the amended bylaw the scope of suspended complaints was expanded to cover all complaints rather than giving the SECO discretion to decide which would be investigated.
The ombudsperson noted that “the principles of transparency, accountability, and integrity should always be promoted, not just in non-election years.”
Chalke described SECO’s recommendations as a “reasonable good faith effort to balance accountability with election integrity.
“Council’s rejection of those recommendations in favour of a no-notice extended prohibition on the receipt and investigation of new ethics complaints is a regrettable decision,” Chalke told council. “I urge council not to adopt the amendment.”
Yet, Coun. Laurie Guerra said she would support final adoption of the bylaw amendments as they are.
“I’m going to support it the way that it is,” she told the Now-Leader before Monday’s council meeting. “I think very circumspectly when I make a decision and I don’t make any decisions lightly and I’m very comfortable with the decisions that I end up making. There is a vote tonight in council and we will have to have it go to that place, and unless I see anything extremely different than what I know then I’m in full support of what the amendments are.”
Coun. Brenda Locke called the ombudsperson’s comments a “game-changer.”
“We’re a child of the province and so if the province decides that they want to listen to the ombudsman…”
Chalke copied the email to Minister of Municipal Affairs Nathan Cullen, Surrey Ethics Commissioner Reece Harding and Surrey City Manager Vincent Lalonde.
“My reaction to this letter is if we are to do the right thing as a city we have to stop the process, go back to second reading,” Locke said. “We have to vote on every single amendment to the bylaw independently.
“On an overall,” she said, “I would say it is at our peril we will not listen to the ombudsperson. The ombudsperson is there to deliver fairness to British Columbia and Surrey residents deserve nothing less.”
Coun. Linda Annis told fellow council members she doesn’t think it’s council’s job to be telling the ethics commissioner how to do his job.
“I feel like we’re providing governance to him, who is supposed to be providing governance to us,” Annis said. “So I really struggle with that.”
Locke said Monday night she would not support “the fact that we are cutting off the public’s ability to scrutinize this council.”
No other council members spoke to the issue Monday night.