Vancouver’s integrity commissioner rules against mayor after he complained about an opposition councillor

For the first time since Vancouver council created a code of conduct, the mayor has used it to file a complaint against a fellow councillor — but it didn’t go the way Ken Sim likely hoped. 

Integrity Commissioner Lisa Southern ruled that councillor Christine Boyle did not contravene the city’s code when she revealed she voted against the city’s decision to stop being a Living Wage Employer. 

The decision was made in a private council meeting — known as in camera — in January, and then made public by the city in March. 

Boyle argued the city’s official communication plan for the announcement, along with the advice she received from staff, allowed her to state how she voted. Sim filed his complaint a week after Boyle’s statement, argued it was a breach of the code, and declined an offer by Southern to resolve the dispute through an informal resolution. 

In her decision, Southern said she did not find the city treated Boyle’s vote as confidential. 

“Both the Communication Plan and the In Camera Memo stated Councillors could tell the public their position on an issue voted on in camera,” wrote Southern. 

“A Councillor who says they are for or against a certain issue after a vote has been held on that issue would generally be understood by the public to have voted in a way consistent with their position on the issue.”

‘The mayor had a lot of other options’

Boyle said she was relieved to have won the case, but disappointed the conflict required a formal investigation, saying it cost her $7,000 in legal fees. 

“The mayor had a lot of other options,” she said.

“It’s certainly put a damper on city hall relationships in my mind. Over six months this has gone on … if we are going to work as a team and try to find common ground where we can, this isn’t the way to do it.”

In a statement from Ken Sim’s communication director, the mayor said he would work with council to have a clear policy around in-camera meetings, as recommended in Southern’s report.

“The purpose of the Integrity Commissioner’s office is to ensure complaints of this nature are fairly evaluated and adjudicated by a non-partisan third party,” it read in part. 

“We appreciate the diligence undertaken by Integrity Commissioner Southern in resolving this matter.”

‘Patchwork’ codes of conduct 

In 2018, Port Moody was the first municipality in B.C. to create a code of conduct, and since then more than 80 others have followed suit, including Vancouver.

The provincial government now mandates that all new councils consider implementing one at the start of their terms, in order to build a framework for how a mayor and councillors conduct themselves. 

But only Vancouver and Surrey have their own independent ethics or integrity commissioners to litigate disputes, with the rest ultimately relying on councillors to judge the actions of their own colleagues. 

“I think the province has left it to us to figure out our own dynamics, which in one way is a good thing,” said Kamloops councillor Bill Sarai, whose community has asked for outside help to resolve a series of ongoing disputes between Mayor Reid Hamer-Jackson and the rest of council.

“But if a mayor or councillors have dug in deep enough that they’re not going to budge and adhere to a recommendation, we’re basically right back at square one.” 

B.C. municipalities have asked the province the last two years for a provincewide integrity commissioner for local issues, but the government has not committed to the idea. 

Reece Harding, a lawyer who has practiced municipal law for three decades and served as Surrey’s first ethics commissioner, said the current system was a “patchwork.”

“Go between each jurisdiction and the patchwork in one will be very different than the next,” he said.

“And that doesn’t really seem to make sense from a governance perspective: that somebody who lives in Maple Ridge should be necessarily different from somebody who lives in Abbotsford or Langford.”

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