Surrey city councillors who aren’t part of the Safe Surrey Coalition majority have expressed concern that procedure related to the Council Code of Conduct Bylaw could be tainted by bias and politics and there needs to be more distance between council and the process itself.
Council on March 8 endorsed city staff recommendations governing procedures for ethics commissioner investigation reports once they are submitted by Surrey’s Ethics Commissioner Office (SECO). Under the bylaw, anyone who believes a council member has behaved in a way that contravenes the code can submit a complaint to SECO. If the complaint proceeds to an investigation, SECO will then submit a report to the city manager and council.
Council’s role under the code, according to the staff report that was endorsed, is to consider SECO’s investigation report in a meeting closed to the public and, “if there is a SECO determination of a contravention,” to decide what measures, if any, should be imposed for the contravention. “Following Council’s deliberations, a summary of the investigation report and Council’s decision regarding measures will be disclosed to the public in compliance with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (“FOIPPA”),” the report indicates.
Surrey Councillor Steven Pettigrew said while the concept of a code of ethics sounds good, he’s “still kind of waiting for it to kick in, so to speak.”
Pettigrew’s main concern is that council itself is “too close” to the matter. “Ultimately we’re policing ourselves and we make decisions to kind of punish or look after ourselves and I’m concerned about that. This doesn’t sit right with me.”
He said he would rather see the “code of ethics” matter transferred from city hall to the provincial government, particularly the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. “I think that’s where its final home should be and they’ll be not only looking after Surrey but all of British Columbia.”
Councillor Brenda Locke said decisions concerning infractions should not be decided by council in closed meetings. “To me the issue of bias and in some cases, dare I say, politics can taint the process and procedural fairness and the outcomes.”
She’s also concerned about frivolous and vexatious claims.
City manager Vince Lalonde said city staff is looking to make improvements to the bylaw that will come before council for consideration in the next few months. “Basically the system, the way it’s set up, is embedded in what’s allowed in the Community Charter and I believe the Community Charters says that council as a governing body is the body that will be deciding on such things,” Lalonde told council.
City lawyer Philip Huynh says council fundamentally has the power to govern its own processes and officers “and so it’s common” for city councils to be the ultimate authority for their code of conduct. “It is common for the commissioner to do the investigation to determine whether or not the breach has occurred under the code and for council to ultimately determine what to do with that,” Huynh noted.
The ethics commissioner, he added, has jurisdiction to dismiss frivolous and vexatious complaints summarily.
Councillor Linda Annis argued that the report should be sent back to staff for recommendations on when a complainant should stay in a meeting and when a complainant should be excused, but this failed on a five-to four-vote, with Safe Surrey Coalition carrying the day.
“This is an ever-changing document,” Annis said. “We are going to find things that need to be changed or addressed.”
Councillor Allison Patton said the concept of having an ethics commission is “about transparency” with the public and to help council members to be the best they can be.
“It wasn’t meant to be a policing process necessarily, it wasn’t meant to be a process where we were raising it to the province where we were hitting each other with a stick because we behaved badly,” Patton said. “It was meant to be restorative, reparative, and in a perfect world we’d have different behaviours than what we’ve experienced in these two years.”
Councillor Laurie Guerra noted that council members have had “plenty of opportunity to provide input ad nauseam” into this matter.
“I don’t know why we keep reinventing the wheel,” she said. “I don’t see the rationale for all the confusion and all the uncertainty around this. It’s simple to me – it’s very black and white to me. I know as an individual I hold myself to a much higher standard that what’s in the code of conduct.”