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Proposed city council Code of Conduct sparks debate

Prince George city council discussed whether or not the city needs an ethics commissioner
Prince George City Hall
City Hall in Prince George.

Prince George city council has passed the first three readings of a new Code of Conduct bylaw, but not without a debate over whether or not the city needs an ethics commissioner.

A code of conduct sets general guidelines about how mayor and council should conduct themselves. Council currently operates by a code of conduct policy that was adopted in 2013.

However, the policy was drafted to be quite general and lacks specifics on processes and procedures with respect to informal and formal dispute resolution.

Back in April, council passed a resolution to review the policy. Administration recommended council replace the policy with an entirely new bylaw, as a bylaw would provide more certainty and is more enforceable.

Reece Harding, a lawyer with Young Anderson, Barrister and Solicitors, explained that the bylaw includes circumstances where an independent third-party solicitor or investigator may be appointed to help ensure neutrality when processing complaints.

However, the bylaw also states that if council members cannot resolve an issue directly with another council member, the first step is to submit a complaint to the city manager or corporate officer.

The complaint would then be referred to the city solicitor who would determine if it needs to be addressed by a third party investigator.

Mayor Simon Yu and Coun. Trudy Klassen took issue with having the city manager or corporate officer involved in the complaint process.

“This independent investigator, the independence has to be absolutely independent, this is how we are going to protect democracy,” said Yu.

Harding said the council member would only be submitting paperwork through the city manager or corporate office and their involvement would be minimal.

He said the most direct way to absolve this concern would be to appoint an independent an ethics commissioner and delegate those responsibilities.

The city of Surrey, Vancouver, New Westminster and formerly the city of Kamloops are the only four local governments that have used the ethics commissioner model.

“That model comes at a significant price and that’s the truth,” said Harding.

He said the alternative, which is what they’ve tried to draft for Prince George, is to give the city manager and corporate officer an administrative role with little substantive decision making.

“They really don’t do much. They receive it, check it and it gets moved along.”

He said to completely rectify Mayor Yu’s concern he would also have to redraft the entirety of the proposed bylaw and create an office of the ethics commissioner for the City of Prince George.

Harding suggested the city adopt the bylaw as it is and give it a try for a while and see if it raises any concerns. If it does, then a discussion could be arranged to look at other models.

“My concern is because of the complaint – just like in all conflicts because we have to work with the city manager and we have to work with each other,” said Yu.  “It has to be independent to protect the integrity of the working of the council with the office of the city manager and corporate officers.”

Klassen agreed with the Mayor’s position.

“The office of the city manger, for them to receive our complaints against each other, is really, really difficult and even if it is just a bare minimum I still see an issue.”

Harding again reiterated that the city manager would not be adjudicating the complaint but simply receiving it and moving it through the system.

When it came to a vote, the first three readings of the bylaw past with Mayor Yu and Klassen opposing.