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New West mayor defends trip to Dubai amid 'fake controversy'

New Westminster Mayor Patrick Johnstone is adamant no policies or regulations violated for his trip to COP28.
Mayor Patrick Johnstone is defending his attendance at a climate change conference in Dubai in December.

New Westminster Mayor Patrick Johnstone stands by his attendance at COP28 despite a “fake controversy” that has raised questions about his attendance at the conference in Dubai.

Councillors Daniel Fontaine and Paul Minhas of the New Westminster Progressives have voiced concerns about the mayor’s trip to Dubai in December for the COP28 conference. In a Jan. 3 news release, Fontaine said “nothing about how this trip was funded and organized seems to have followed the basic practices of openness and transparency.”

Johnstone was on vacation from Dec. 21 to Jan. 10, having booked flights on Oct. 3. In a Jan. 12 interview with the Record, he stated that all aspects of his trip adhered to policy, previous practice, and rules in the city.

“Everything about my travel and the conference is transparent. It met policy and procedures in the city. It's a shame that climate action is so triggering for some members of council that this needs to be the event that a fake controversy has to be treated around,” he said. “It's disappointing; it's disingenuous. Residents in New Westminster deserve better.”

Johnstone said New Westminster's participation in the global climate action summit and COP28 is a good thing.

“The fact that we were invited, the fact we were able to take part in this international conference and be recognized for our work and climate action, I think that's a good news story,” he said.

At Monday’s council meeting, council supported Fontaine’s request to consider his motion on the matter at its next meeting. (Johnstone was still on vacation and could not respond to questions.)

The motion requests a report from the mayor that includes a details about costs of the trip, a day-by-day itinerary of all meetings and events he attended, a summary of what the third-party funder offered the mayor’s office (in terms of free trips to Dubai for himself, members of his family or city staff) and a summary of the direct benefits to the City of New Westminster. The motion also requests the city’s new ethics commissioner be requested to conduct a workshop with council regarding the Community Charter, with a particular emphasis on section 105, which pertains to restrictions imposed on municipal officials regarding the acceptance of gifts.

“I'm fully aware of section 105 of the charter, and the Community Charter was not violated any way taking this trip,” Johnstone said. “As for the rest of the motion, council will debate that, I guess, when it comes in front of council.”

Johnstone said many of the questions raised by the councillors can be found in a lengthy, three-piece overview he wrote about on his personal blog.

Johnstone attended a Dec. 4 council meeting via Zoom, while attending the conference in Dubai. (Then acting-mayor Ruby Campbell chaired the meeting in case there were any technology issues.)

According to Johnstone, Fontaine contacted him a few days after council’s Dec. 11 meeting saying he had some questions about the trip to Dubai and requested a meeting after Christmas. He said his assistant proposed three meeting dates where they could sit down and discuss the issue.

After Minhas went to the media to voice concerns about the mayor’s trip to Dubai trip, Johnstone said he asked his assistant contact Minhas with some dates for a sit-down discussion.

“I have not received reply to those dates,” he said of offers to meet with Fontaine and Minhas.

Johnstone expressed concern that the New Westminster Progressive councillors issued a press release a month after he had attended the conference in Dubai and when he was out of town on vacation, having never taken him up on his request to meet and discuss the issue.

“It seems pretty disingenuous to me,” he said.

Earlier this week, Fontaine told the Record that he and Minhas had met with Lisa Spitale, the city’s chief administrative officer, to discuss their concerns.

Concerns raised

In November, Johnstone said he received an “out of the blue” invitation to attend the conference from C40 (a global network of mayors concerned about the climate crisis) and ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability (a global network of more than 2,500 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development.)

Johnstone attended a webinar on the Remembrance Day weekend, where he learned that “local government folks like me” from around the world were being invited to attend the 28th Conference of the Parties  (COP28) and the Local Climate Action Summit, and the C40 Cities Leadership Group would be funding their involvement in the conference.

“Over the next week or so I talked to staff about it, and I was like: ‘Is this useful to us? Will this help advance what we're trying to do?’” he said. “When they said they thought it was useful, it was good for us to be taking part in it, we decided to take part.”

Johnstone said he discussed attendance at the conference with Spitale, senior staff and Campbell, as was scheduled to be the city’s acting mayor in December.

“No red flags were raised about it,” he said.

According to Johnstone, travel, accommodations and meals were covered; while he purchased some of his own meals, he said he won’t be claiming those or any other expenses related to the conference.

“There will be no expenses related to this to expensed to the city,” he said.

Asked if his partner attended the conference – as was alluded to in Fontaine’s motion – Johnstone confirmed she travelled to Dubai.

“She did not travel with me – she arrived after me, she left before me. She did not attend any COP events and she paid for all of her own expenses. We didn't travel together,” he said. “No one else arranged her travel except for herself. She paid all of her own costs.”

The New West Progressives have raised concerns about the funding and the process for approving the mayor’s trip.

Fontaine said the mayor and council have travel budgets and are not required to have their trips authorized by council. Because the trip to Dubai and attendance at COP28 was paid for by a third-party organization, he doesn’t believe the same rules apply.

Fontaine questioned what his “political opponents” would be saying if he was offered a free trip to the Super Bowl from a third-party, such as a liquor distribution company, that felt New Westminster needed an NFL team and should attend to the Super Bowl to see the NFL in action.

“Now, the reason I use it – it sounds egregious – is because it's the process that we have to look at, not where he went,” he told the Record Jan. 8.

Fontaine said he “doesn’t care” about the purpose of Johnstone’s trip.  He cares about who made the offer, the value of the trip, and the way the trip was arranged through the mayor’s office.

“I have no idea,” he said, when asked what policy or legislation he thinks Johnstone may have violated.

“And do you know why I have no idea? We have not seen a single report from the mayor's office. I don't know what he accepted, when he accepted it, how much it was accepted for, who offered it. I have no idea.”

Fontaine said he has “lots of questions” but no answers about the trip because he’s not reading the mayor’s blog.

“If he wishes to report that to council because he's said it was a city event and it was endorsed by the city, then produce a report,” he said.

Council process

In the New Westminster Progressives news release, Minhas expressed concern that all members of council were not made aware of the mayor’s trip to Dubai beforehand. He went on to say that no staff report, email or memo was forwarded to council in advance outlining the financial arrangements which were organized solely by the mayor’s office. 

Johnstone said the city has never had a practice or policy requiring council to pre-approve mayor or council travel.

“That's never existed,” Johnstone said. “So I don't know why it suddenly applies to me and this trip, when it's never applied to any previous conferences attended.”

Johnstone said no one on city council expressed concerns about his travel to St. Johns, Newfoundland in August 2023 for the Canadian Association of Police Governance conference.

“There's no requirement, policy, procedure or practice of us doing that in the past, with the possible exception if a councillor wants to exceed their travel budget for the year,” he said. “We have a travel budget, so if you want to exceed your travel budget, then you may have to come to us council for that. That's not the case here.”

Johnstone believes many of the questions raised in Fontaine’s motion have been covered in his blog, including benefits to the city by attending the conference, which is where he has reported in the past about his attendance at conferences like the Union of B.C. Municipalities and Canadian Association of Police Governance. He said he’s happy to provide a report to council about COP28 if that’s what council wants.

However, Johnstone pointed out that council members haven’t been asked to report to back to council on their attendance at events, including the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

“I didn't see councillor Minhas reporting on his participation at FCM this year,” he said. “I still don't know what he did at FCM. But you know: we have to have a respect for each other's professionalism in this job and recognize that they are allowed to take part in participate in professional development like this. And they're allowed to take part in events that are important to their work as a city council.”

'Doing my job'

Despite the “fake controversy” surrounding his trip to Dubai, Johnstone believes the learnings gleaned from the conference will be “really valuable” to the City of New Westminster.

“I'm the mayor of a city that lost 28 people in a heat dome, directly caused by climate disruption. And for me to say, ‘Well, no, I can't, I'm not interested in taking action, I'm not interested in doing the work that we have to do to address the root causes of climate disruption’ would be me not doing my job.”

Johnstone said his attendance at the conference in Dubai did not impact the work of the city.

“No one was pulled off, pothole duty to go to COP28,” he said.

Johnstone said New Westminster was among more than 100 cities that took part in the Local Climate Action Summit, part of COP28, including Halifax (Nova Scotia), Guelph (Ontario), Hoboken (New Jersey), Copenhagen (Denmark) and Bogota (Colombia).

“So there were cities of various different sizes, from various different jurisdictions. And part of that is to find out what different jurisdictions are doing, what we're doing well, what we aren't doing well compared to them,” he said. “The other half of the process was about us, as local governments working together to call on the national governments in the negotiations process in order to make sure that you are supporting climate action at the local level.”

Want to read more?

You can read more about Fontaine’s motion to council on Monday night here.

You can read a staff report about the city’s participation in COP28 here.

You can read more details about Johnstone’s trip on his blog, where he has penned a three-piece outline of his attendance at the conference.