Comment: A sign of hope with codes of conduct for elected municipal officials
A comment from the vice president of Grumpy Taxpayer $ of Greater Victoria, a citizens’ advocacy group for municipal taxpayers.
Nothing boils the blood more than seeing our electoral faith shattered by misbehaving councilors or regional directors.
What do Sooke taxpayers do when a councilor missed 30 percent of all council and special meetings in a three-year period? What do Langford taxpayers do when council obstructs access to public information? What do Victoria taxpayers do when a counselor goes to another jurisdiction to reprimand the RCMP at the Fairy Creek Old Forest protest?
The Local Government Act or the Community Charter, the underlying legislation for local government, offers little recourse. Taxpayers are generally left on the sidelines until they can vote in the next few months or election years.
There will now be more recourse for taxpayers and councils as a result of changes to municipal government legislation in the fall session under Bill 26.
The province created a legal requirement that all municipal and regional governments develop or improve a code of conduct for councils and board members. It must be made at least once within six months of a new term and a public statement must be made on the reasons for the decision.
Some existing codes of conduct require an independent third party to investigate, and they may recommend that the mayor or councilor apologize, consult, be publicly censored, or even severely fined.
The provincial mandate follows a recommendation from the Union of BC Municipalities at its fall convention. Delegates voted only 61.7% in favor of the resolution.
While the municipalities are creations of the province and operate under its legislation, the 162 fiefdoms are demanding in their sovereignty and retain considerable legislative power. Although these are limited jurisdictions, municipalities are seen as “autonomous, responsible and accountable to their citizens”.
But with these changes to the code of conduct – and those as part of the NDP’s ambitious climate plan imposing major changes to urban and regional development – the province may need to toughen up its tone with municipalities.
In the past, the province has acted lightly in telling local government what to do, and has come under heavy criticism for taking an overly passive, self-determined approach. The legislation stifled significant improvements in municipal governance.
The Community Charter requires the province to consult with UBCM before changing legislation – incredibly, it restricts provincial powers – although it also allows ministerial direction.
In this case, the UBCM also requested an update of the oath of office taken by local elected officials. He wants the fundamental principles identified by his responsible conduct working group to be included. The addition of the words “integrity, responsibility, accountability, leadership and collaboration” does not seem unreasonable, but the province has not acted on this recommendation.
In our view, during a time of tremendous upheaval with the pandemic, the economic crisis, the drug crisis and a worrying increase in serious and violent crime, it is essential that the province take a much greater leadership role.
The senior partner needs to do a lot more.
Why is there no residency requirement to run for municipal office?
Theoretically, Sooke could draft Oak Bay residents Ryan Reynolds and Pamela Anderson for the board. As non-residents, they are eligible since the province remains the only jurisdiction in the country where there is no residency requirement.
Why aren’t municipalities required to post the council’s annual financial statements on their website, where they can be easily found?
As it stands, the law allows taxpayers to come by hand to the town hall to request the documents.
Most taxpayers are unaware that sitting mayors and councilors, as well as municipal candidates and employees, must submit annual financial statements by January 15, in accordance with the BC Financial Disclosure Act.
The law requires politicians to list the company’s income, real estate, liabilities, and assets and investments in order to prevent and detect conflicts of interest.
Victoria, Saanich and Vancouver are three of the few jurisdictions that provide the public with searchable website links to financial statements. Locally, Langford and Colwood didn’t bother.
Why is there nothing preventing people accused or convicted of a serious criminal offense from holding municipal office?
Although the Community Charter disqualifies elected representatives from the exercise of their functions because of a conflict of interest, of not attending meetings or not taking an oath, the fact of having a criminal record does no obstacle.
In 2008, the mayor of Port Coquitlam pleaded guilty to assault and breach of recognizance, but only left after failing to get re-elected. In 2017, a Pitt Meadows city councilor was convicted of sexual assault and voluntarily resigned the following week. The mayor of Surrey has been charged with public mischief but continues to be mayor and chief of the police council.
Local government is the most important government in our lives: during a time of multiple crises, we need politicians who conduct themselves professionally, who are above reproach and who are held to account before the next election.
To its credit, the Town of View Royal recognized the problem and adopted a code of conduct in November.
The new provincial code of conduct requirements are a small step for the province, which we hope will lead to a giant leap in the faith of municipal taxpayers.
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