Port Moody Mayor Rob Vagramov’s return to work this week while continuing to fight a sexual assault charge has outraged many of his constituents and fellow councillors.
But experts say there’s nothing in B.C.’s laws preventing the mayor from continuing to hold office — nor any legal backing for council to remove him from the job.
Vagramov is charged with one count of sexual assault over an incident alleged to have taken place in 2015, when he was a city councillor. Vagramov has denied the allegation.
He announced Monday he was returning to work from a five-month unpaid leave of absence after Crown and his legal counsel reduced the indictment to a summary matter, meaning the case could avoid trial.
At the latest court date for the case Thursday — which Vagramov did not attend — his lawyer, Ian Donaldson, said he was seeking to settle the case through alternative measures.
The system is available for lesser crimes when Crown determines avoiding prosecution could be more beneficial to a victim.
WATCH: (Sept. 9) Port Moody mayor returns to job before his case is settled
Vagramov faced heat from residents who attended Tuesday’s council meeting, the mayor’s first since announcing his return.
After the meeting, Coun. Diana Dillworth tabled a motion to prevent Vagramov from returning to his duties until he’s done fighting his legal battle.
“Until and unless Mayor Vagramov is completed exonerated of all charges, he should be asked to continued his unpaid leave of absence, and if he cannot be completed exonerated, I believe he should resign his position,” Dillworth told CKNW’s Simi Sara on Wednesday.
LISTEN: Port Moody Coun. Diana Dillworth discusses Mayor Rob Vagramov’s return to work
Dillworth says she tabled her motion, which will be debated at the next council meeting on Oct. 8, after hearing from concerned residents.
“Right now, the mood, quite frankly, is unprecedented,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable and awkward for everyone.
“The people that I have been talking to and who are sending me emails have said they’re angry, they’re embarrassed, they’re disappointed, they’re disgusted.”
Other councillors have also voiced outrage, with Coun. Meghan Lahti saying he has “no business being at city hall” while the court case is ongoing.
How can Vagramov stay?
But University of British Columbia political science professor Carey Doberstein says Dillworth’s motion will likely not have any effect on Vagramov’s standing.
“Councils themselves don’t really have the authority to do this because this is shaped by provincial government legislation which is, as of right now, silent on this issue,” he said.
B.C.’s Community Charter and Local Government Act offers no mechanism for removing elected officials who are convicted of crimes or are facing criminal charges.
The issue came up in 2017 after then-Pitt Meadows councillor David Murray was found guilty of his own sexual assault charge. His case involved a minor and dated back over two decades.
Murray remained on council throughout his legal fight, and even for days following the conviction before finally stepping down.
At last May’s annual general meeting of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, former mayor John Becker tabled a motion that would essentially allow local governments to fire convicted officials.
WATCH: (Oct. 29, 2017) Pitt Meadows councillor finally resigns
The motion stalled after the vote ended up in a 30-30 tie among delegates.
The issue was also brought up at the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM), but only pursued language that would disqualify an elected official from holding office if they are convicted of a crime — not if they’re charged.
The resolution, which was brought forward by officials in both Pitt Meadows and Terrace, noted the province had already been lobbied about updating the legislation back in 2003.
At that time, the province noted legislation already disqualifies officials from holding or running for office if they “have not completed the sentence for an indictable offence.”
The province has not responded to the UBCM’s latest resolution. Global News has requested comment.
Until the legislation is changed to include disqualifications over convictions or unresolved charges, Doberstein says all Port Moody council can do is make a request for Vagramov to resign, which he does not have to follow or even respond to.
“Based on the motion, it’s about asking him to resign because they do not have the means to force him to resign,” he said.
Vagramov’s next court date is scheduled for Nov. 13.
— With files from Simon Little and Kyle Benning