Surrey city council approved a bylaw Monday to establish an ethics commissioner who would have the authority to investigate allegations of ethical misconduct aimed at the mayor and council and then prescribe recommendations for sanction or discipline.
Rob Constanzo, the city’s general manager of corporate services, noted Surrey is the first civic government in B.C. to create an independent ethics commissioner’s office.
Councillor Steven Pettigrew was the lone member of council to vote against the bylaw, whereas the other eight landed in favour. Pettigrew said he supports the concept but argued that the bylaw in its current form is flawed.
“The process that we’re going through is a flawed process, and the way that this corporate report was created was actually created is an example of the flaws,” Pettigrew said at Monday night’s council meeting, adding this was the first time he’s seeing it.
“This is going to be a theme for me tonight, about corporate reports and how they actually interact with council and staff,” Pettigrew said. “So, as council, we do not have the opportunity to actually process this information; we get all this information to us at the last minute sit down, and some of this is quite meaty. We need to be able to discuss these things more amongst ourselves, there’s a council with staff, to have this opportunity. So there’s numerous problems that I see with this bylaw.”
For instance, he voiced concern about the way the committee struck to select a commissioner will operate.
“The way it’s written right now, there’s a lack of accountability that this committee will have to council.”
Finally, Pettigrew said, of all the power that’s delegated to the commissioner, there’s one sentence is the document that would allow the commissioner to delegate all of his or her authority to someone else, “and this someone else has not been approved by council or gone through this grueling selection process or undergone any sort of screening.”
The purpose of the Ethics Commissioner Establishment Bylaw is to create the position of an ethics commissioner and establish the terms of reference for a selection committee. Ultimately, the intent is to help members of council meet their ethical obligations.
According to the report, the commissioner will have “the power to investigate allegations of ethical misconduct in relation to Mayor and Council; to report their findings to Council; and provide recommendations to Council as to the appropriate sanction or discipline.”
The selection committee will have five voting members. There will be two members of council, three members of the public and a non-voting “legal professional.”
Councillor Brenda Locke thanked Councillor Jack Hundial for initiating it.
“This is an innovative piece of bylaw for Surrey and we will be the first in British Columbia, so that’s pretty awesome for us,” she said.
Prior to the vote, Locke said that when she was a Liberal MLA, she learned that ethics commissioners are “as much as keeping politicians out of trouble as getting them into trouble,” and asked city staff if “that’s part of the theme with this one as well.”
She was told that the ethics commissioner will educate and provide advice related to the administration of a council code of conduct, which has yet to be wrought, but at this point the bylaw merely sets out the commissioner’s basic powers and creates the roles, as required under the Community Charter.
Hundial said he would like to see the commissioner in place before a code of conduct is enacted, to help review it.
“Simply because, as this role develops, there’s a potential for having the code of conduct piece come back and have to be sort of re-evaluated,” he said.
None of the five Safe Surrey Coalition council members spoke to the bylaw.