British Columbia’s ombudsperson has expressed “disappointment” with a suite of controversial bylaw amendments related to the ethics commissioner in Surrey, green-lit by councillors earlier this month.
In a letter to the mayor and council, Jay Chalke said they “weakened the credibility” of their efforts to promote transparency through the Surrey Ethics Commissioner Office (SECO).
“The principles of transparency, accountability, and integrity should always be promoted, not just in non-election years,” Chalke wrote Monday.
He urged the council not to adopt the amendments that passed third reading on April 11.
Two weeks ago, councillors voted five to three in favour of freezing all new complaints and investigations by the ethics commissioner until after the municipal election on Oct. 15. The changes to the Council Code of Conduct Bylaw ensure such a pause will take place on April 12 of every general election year, until the day Surrey voters hit the ballot box.
Many other jurisdictions have similar bylaws, but they do not span six months, Chalke noted. He also lamented that the freeze applies to all new complaints, rather than allowing the ethics commissioner to determine which ones ought to be investigated right away.
“Council’s failure to give any notice of this immediate blanket moratorium on new complaints impacted every constituent who may have otherwise been planning on bringing an ethics complaint forward.”
Chalke criticized the council for excluding a recommendation from the ethics commissioner’s office in its list of amendments. The office had suggested the bylaw clearly indicate that all ethics investigation reports are accessible to the public, unless permitted under the city’s Community Charter.
“By this decision, council has plainly decided not to maximize public awareness of SECO’s investigation reports,” Chalke wrote.
Doug McCallum, Surrey mayor, declined to comment on this story.
Coun. Laurie Guerra, who voted in favour of the amendments passed on April 11, said she disagreed with the ombudsperson’s criticisms.
“This council has put a governor on ourselves, we are the first ones in British Columbia to come up with the office of the ethics commissioner,” she told Global News.
“It’s a work in progress … not everything that the (ethics commissioner) wanted to see in there was amended. I’m sure some people wanted less and some people wanted more.”
Guerra said in the future, there may be other amendments the Council Code of Conduct Bylaw relating to SECO, adding that she would “probably” like to see investigation report summaries made available to the public.
“I’m fully in support of the amendments the way they stand now. Would I like it go a little further? Probably,” she explained. “At least we’re further than where we were.”
The six-month moratorium, she added, prevents “nonsense” by political opposition “trying to make a heyday” within the office of the ethics commissioner in the months prior to an election.
Coun. Brenda Locke, who is vying for McCallum’s seat as mayor in the upcoming election, has opposed the bylaw amendments from the start. She has criticized the length of the pre-election investigations moratorium as a denial of public trust and the public’s right to complain to the ethics commissioner.
“There are some very serious red flags, and every citizen should know and be asking this mayor and his council supporters why? What are they afraid of?” she told Global News on Monday. “Why would they want to stop having investigations six months ahead of an election?”
The amendments are back on the agenda at Surrey’s council meeting Monday, and she said she hopes the changes are rejected in their fourth reading.
Editor’s note: A update was made to this article at 7:58 p.m. to correct the name of Surrey Coun. Laurie Guerra. Global News regrets the error.