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UPDATE: White Rock council conduct bylaw aims to curb undue criticism

City measure also regulates communications, posts on social media
White Rock council has given final reading to a bylaw spelling out acceptable - and unacceptable – conduct by its members. (Peace Arch News photo)

White Rock Council has passed a new bylaw to regulate the conduct of its members – over objections voiced by two concerned that council would “rush it through.”

The bylaw received final reading and adoption Monday night (March 27), with both Coun. Christopher Trevelyan and Coun David Chesney voting against it.

The bylaw, prepared by staff and city solicitors, lays out ethical obligations of councillors and mayor, including a basic requirement to be “free from undue influence and not act, or appear to act, to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, family, friends or business interests.”

But while placing expected emphasis on general decorum, and targeting all forms of bullying and harassment – including sexual harassment – the bylaw also places sweeping restrictions on council members’ ability to comment on decisions of council and on making criticisms of staff or other council members.

It also places limits on council comments to media, and on members’ own social media posts.

The first three readings were approved unanimously, without discussion, at the regular council meeting on March 13.

But discussion of final adoption brought comments from Trevelyan and Chesney (the latter had been away when the previous readings had passed).

“There’s quite a bit in here,” said Trevelyan.

“As it is, I cannot support it. I would like more time to discuss this… just to go over this and review some of the clauses.”

He suggested a friendly amendment that would table the bylaw for more discussion, but this was rejected by the mover, Coun. Bill Lawrence.

Chesney said he supported Trevelyan’s view.

“Twenty-three pages governing my actions as a councillor, which I have had no input into, I find very arduous.”

“I’m concerned about it,” added Trevelyan, following a clarification on whether council already had a code of conduct (chief administrative officer Guillermo Ferrero confirmed that, to this point, council only had a policy covering communications with media).

“We’re already regulated by the Local Government Act, we do not have a council code of conduct,” Trevelyan said.

“It’s not written by council, it was written by staff for us. We do not have to have one. We can look at it, we can change it, but to regulate what we can say and (how) we can interact…I think it’s a real mistake to rush it through.”

Mayor Megan Knight, who supported the bylaw, said she felt councillors had had plenty of time to read its provisions, and that staff “has done a good job with it.”

Coun. Michele Partridge noted that a lot of other municipal councils are going forward with similar codes.

“Every workplace has a code of conduct. It makes sense that a council should have (one), and rules to follow,” she said.

Among other provisions, the bylaw establishes a communications protocol that allows the city to appoint a spokesperson on city business, and compels council members to ensure that “inquiries from the public and media on the City’s position” are directed to that spokesperson.

“A council member communicating their own opinion shall ensure that the communication clearly indicates that it is the council member’s own position,” the bylaw states.

It further requires, in interactions with the public, media and social media, that council members “shall accurately communicate the decisions of the council, even if they disagree with the majority decision of council.”

“When discussing the fact that they did not support a decision, or voted against the decision, or that another council member did not support a decision or voted against a decision, a council member shall refrain from making disparaging comments about other council members or about Council’s processes and decisions.”

A written corporate report from Ferrero noted a new amendment to B.C.’s Community Charter, passed last June, requires each local government to consider establishing a code of conduct, or reviewing a current one, within the first six months of the council term.

Ferrero recommended the code be established by bylaw, as this makes it easier to enforce – and does not require the CAO or other staff to “become part of the ultimate substantive process.”

But it does require that council appoint an “integrity commissioner” – a retired lawyer is suggested – to oversee a formal complaint that progresses to final stages of the resolution process.

The bylaw has provisions that forbid “unwelcome or objectionable conduct or comment” by a council member toward another council member, advisory board member, volunteer or staff that “causes that individual to be humiliated or intimidated, including verbal aggression or insults, making derogatory comments, including questioning (their) professional competence…”

The bylaw also stipulates that council members “shall not issue instructions or directions to staff regarding city business except through the chief administrative officer or the appropriate department manager” and that they “shall not interfere with, hinder or obstruct staff, a volunteer or an advisory board member in the exercise or performance of their roles, responsibilities, powers, duties or functions.”

The bylaw also regulates council members’ participation in council and advisory board meetings (including that they must not be absent for more than four consecutive meetings without reasonable justification, such as illness, family circumstance or regional government business).

It also lays out what council members can and cannot do during the course of an election campaign, as well as correct procedures for dealing with conflicts of interest, gifts, use of municipal assets, and rules for participating in outside business, profession or other activities without affecting their ”integrity, independence or competence” as a council member.

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