There’s a very short list of circumstances that can dislodge municipal councillors in B.C. from their seats at the table between elections. They can run seriously afoul of the law, incur the wrath of the community and provoke all kinds of consternation at city hall, but still hang on to their jobs. The only behaviours that get them ousted are failing to take the oath of office, voting with a conflict of interest or missing four consecutive meetings.
Such cases are few and far between, but it happens enough that municipal law is being changed to sideline councillors much earlier when criminal proceedings are started against them. The almost unlimited tolerance in municipal law for criminal allegations is being curtailed.
MLAs started debating the changes this week and it looks like they will pass easily through the legislature. Municipal Affairs Minister Nathan Cullen said they provide two routes for councils to take in situations where a member is under criminal suspicion.
The existing disqualification law is being changed so that a mayor or councillor is automatically discharged at the time of conviction for any indictable offence. Also, any council member who is charged with a serious offence can be suspended with pay through to the conclusion of the case. That clause tries to observe the principle of presumed innocence while, at the same time, eliminating the distraction usually created by the charge.
Cullen said there have been consistent complaints about the “incredible distraction” caused when someone stays in office even after being found guilty of a serious offence. Current municipal law allows someone to serve on council even after conviction, right up to the point when they are jailed and miss meetings.
Councillors feel constrained about voting someone off council and the disruptions can be significant. “I have had many conversations with colleagues about how difficult this is to conduct normal business … when the person sitting next to you is continuing to vote, yet this cloud of a serious and significant charge has been laid.”
A mayor in the Vancouver suburbs was charged three years ago with sexual assault over an incident several years previously. He took a leave of absence after the charge was sworn, but returned to work a few months later while it was still pending, which created a rift on council. He stepped aside again after council passed a motion asking him to do so. The charge was later stayed.
A Fraser Valley councillor faced sexual-assault charges in 2016 and remained on council for the duration of the case, even for a few months after conviction.
Liberal MLA Dan Ashton, a former Penticton mayor, said when charges are laid against elected officials “public trust is shaken, and steps need to be taken immediately to restore the trust.”
Ashton also broached the idea of extending the change to include some civil court actions, which can cast a cloud.
He said the suspension with pay is warranted, but wondered “if there isn’t some form of recourse where a municipality could not recover some of those funds from the individual that has not been there and is charged in a criminal offence.”
B.C. Green MLA Adam Olsen supported the bill in the initial debate, saying the changes are important.
He also raised civil suits, given that sexual-assault cases sometimes don’t proceed criminally, but survivors elect to go the civil route.
The Union of B.C. Municipalities dealt with resolutions in recent years asking the province to move the threshold for disqualification. One recommended disqualification upon conviction and paid leave after charges are laid, which is what is in the bill.
With long lags in trial dates, protracted trials for indictable offences and appeal periods, it can take lengthy periods of time to fully resolve such cases. The new law will apply to municipal councillors and regional district directors, but not school trustees, as they are governed by different legislation.
Just So You Know: Another section of the bill fixes an error made four years ago in a change to the Agricultural Land Commission. Cullen said that amendment created an “inadvertent policy change” regarding approving officers’ discretion to approve subdivisions on non-agricultural land.
“This was an error and we’ve taken the opportunity to correct that error.”
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