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Update: City council adopts policy around letters of support

The policy is in response to concerns raised after the city wrote letters of support for a sitting city councillor’s business.
Best Damn Music Festival
Crews set up the stage for the Best Damn Music Festival at the Prince George Exhibition Grounds. A controversy about letters of support written by the City of Prince George for the event, hosted by a city councillor, has prompted a new policy to be brought forward.

On Monday, city council approved a proposed policy to regulate which organizations the City of Prince George will write letters of support for.

City council requested a policy be prepared, after Coun. Brian Skakun brought forward concerns about city writing letters of support for a sitting city councillor’s business without notifying council or the public.

“Council directed Administration to return recommendations to Council for a policy and process for Mayor and Council writing letters for local businesses, non-profits and elected officials. There is currently no specific Council policy in place to provide guidance for responding to such requests,” city manager Walter Babicz wrote in a report to city council on Monday. “Based on staff’s research, relatively few local governments in BC have adopted a formal policy on providing letters of support.”

In letters dated Sept. 22, 2021 and Sept. 28, 2021, former Prince George mayor Lyn Hall and former City of Prince George manager of economic development Melissa Barcellos supported Kyle Sampson Productions’ application to the BC Fairs, Festivals and Events Recovery Fund. Kyle Sampson Productions, owned by Coun. Kyle Sampson, received $157,000 in grants through the provincial program to host the Best Damn Music Festival at Exhibition Park in 2022.

“I think staff were put in a really awkward position, and Coun. Sampson was put in an awkward position,” Skakun said. “It’s clear we needed this.”

Under the new policy, all requests for letters of support must go through the city’s manager of legislative services. If the request is from a non-profit organization or registered charity, doesn’t require a financial or in-kind contribution by the city, is in connection to an initiative that would benefit the city, doesn’t compete with a grant application being made by the City of Prince George, and does not contravene any legislation or city policy, then city staff can prepare a letter of support for the mayor to approve and sign. Even if a request does meet those criteria, the city manager or mayor could refer the request to city council for approval.

“Grant applications are often prepared and submitted by organizations close to the application deadline, and the City may receive such requests without the time available before the deadline to place the request on a regular Council meeting agenda,” Babicz wrote in his report. “The attached draft Policy proposes that in certain circumstances staff be authorized to prepare a letter of support to be signed by the Mayor, with the signed letter then being placed on a Council meeting agenda for information.”

If a request doesn't meet the criteria in the policy, then city staff would advise the party asking for the letter and may refer the request to city council for consideration. All requests for letters of support by sitting members of city council will be referred to city council for consideration, under the policy.

City council approved an amendment to the policy, expanding the clause around city councillors to include organizations for which councillors have conflicts of interest, as defined by the B.C. Community Charter.

Coun. Tim Bennett said the change was needed to make sure a city councillor couldn’t have a subordinate at a business they own or an organization they work for submit the letter on their behalf, to avoid the request being considered by city council.

Under the proposed policy, Kyle Sampson Productions’ requests for letters of support in 2021 would have triggered two of the clauses, requiring the request to be considered by city council: it is a for-profit business and is owned and operated by Sampson.

Copies of all letters of support signed by the mayor would be included as information items in a future city council meeting.

“The policy is clear, concise and is a positive move forward,” Coun. Ron Polillo said. “I think everyone around the council knows why this was brought forward. I don’t think we’ll have to deal with this situation again, if it is followed.”

Sampson recused himself from the debate on the motion.