Surrey council in a 5-3 vote Monday night approved a controversial 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 cast its vote in favour, with councillors Jack Hundial, Linda Annis and Brenda Locke opposed.
Annis said as the ethics commissioner’s job is to provide oversight on how council members should be conducting themselves she finds it “kind of odd now” that council members are providing oversight to him “in terms of re-directing some of his recommendations.”
She said it’s “troubling” to stop the intake of complaints with six months still left in this council’s term.
“Clearly we have six months of time to be representing the residents of Surrey and to making sure that our behaviour and the code of ethics that we’ve all agreed to, that we’re adhering to it,” Annis said. “I think that the ethics commissioner should be allowed to continue to take intake of complaints, as they do in many other cities, until 90 days before the election.”
She also said preventing the commissioner from obtaining documents from closed council sessions is “very problematic.”
Locke echoed Annis’s concerns, saying the Surrey Ethics Commissioner Office “absolutely should have that jurisdiction.”
Moreover, Locke said, stopping the processing of complaints six months before an election is “far too long for a window for that” as opposed to during a writ period or even 90 days before an election, in keeping with other cities.
“The issue of the integrity of this place and the whole issue around public access should be open and fluid to the public,” Locke added. “This is their house, this is their information after all.”
Coun. Mandeep Nagra asked city staff if this “will anyhow” affect ongoing investigations. He was told that while there will be a moratorium on complaints received after April 12, the moratorium won’t affect investigations that are already in stream. Nagra also asked what the average turn-around time is for processing complaints and was told it could take three to six months and the vast majority of complaints are summarily dismissed.
“So pretty much we are saving a lot of taxpayers’ money here because we won’t be able to see the outcome of those investigations before election anyways, so I support this amendments,” Nagra said.
Hundial said the SECO was established for the public, not for elected officials. “It’s there to ensure confidence, progress, transparency in elected officials here,” he told council.
Coun. Doug Elford supported the amendments and added that he would have liked to see the moratorium built into the “initial package” at the “very beginning.”
Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum in January did an about-face on the expected introduction of a bylaw to amend the code after it was slammed by critics as authoritarian and draconian. If passed at that time, that amended bylaw would have suspended investigations into council members’ conduct from Jan. 31 until a new council is sworn into office after the Oct. 15 civic election. But it was yanked off the agenda on the same day it was set to be voted on.
“Having said that,” Elford said, “I support the six months because it mirrors what other communities in Canada do. We’re not doing anything out of the ordinary here.”
Coun. Laurie Guerra said she supports the amendments “100 per cent.”
Among key principles governing the expected conduct of elected officials, the bylaw states a council member shall not breach their oath, contravene a city bylaw or law of B.C. or Canada, bully or harass another person, defame another person or abuse their office. The bylaw applies to the workplace “and elsewhere,” and use of social media by a member of council but does not apply to conduct in “their personal life.”