Port Moody calls for municipal ethics commissioner; councillors dismiss recent allegations

Port Moody council unanimously supported a call for the establishment of a provincial ethics commissioner for local governments while also judging the allegation inciting the appeal scarcely credible.

Most of council seemed to find the allegation driving Coun. Havern Lurbiecki’s motion as one final attempt to thwart the largest development in Port Moody history.

However, several councillors pointed to the historical need – both in Port Moody and abroad – for a third-party watchdog to look into potential ethics and conduct violations at municipal councils.

“The future does not have to look like the past. We can take the events from the last few weeks, or the last many years, as a learning experience,” Lurbiecki said.

During the public hearing for Wesgroup’s 2,587-unit Coronation Park development on Oct. 3, a member of the public alleged that a majority of council held an illegal meeting with a developer.

The allegation led to Lurbiecki walking out of the meeting prior to the final rezoning vote after her call for an investigation was voted down by council.

Mayor Meghan Lahti, the developer, and several councillors have since dismissed any illegality, stating the meeting was simply a tour of another development site in Vancouver.

The motion requests a new provincial office to provide fair and unbiased resources for local governments, guidance on legal and conflict code of conduct violations, as well as allegations of bullying.

Council also approved sending the motion to the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM), as well as a letter to B.C. Premier and Minister of Municipal Affairs.

Lurbiecki said regardless of one’s opinion on the issue, the situation serves as an example of a larger issue regarding oversight pertaining to allegations against municipal councils.

Currently, most local councils are self regulating and can choose whether to address allegations of wrongdoing by a majority vote.

“These are situations we just shouldn’t be placed in,” Lurbiecki said, describing councils as akin to juries overseeing their own trials. “The very people who may be facing an accusation or concern oversee how it’s handled.”

The province recently passed legislation requiring councils to consider establishing their own codes of conduct within six months of an election.

However, Lurbiecki said there is a risk of bias as councils continue to oversee how these codes of conduct are enforced

She said even when municipalities seek legal opinions, conduct internal investigations or hire outside firms, councils must give first approval and then decide what actions to take, “almost always behind closed doors.”

Lurbiecki – who was the only Port Moody councillor opposed to approving Coronation Park’s rezoning – added there are also no protections for minority councillors voting against a majority.

On several occasions during the past year, Lurbiecki has alleged other members have attempted to silence her opinion on issues related to development.

This is not the first time municipalities have called for the establishment of the provincial ethics office – it’s not even the first time Port Moody has called for one.

Coun. Diana Dilworth said the City of Kelowna first brought forth a motion to UBCM in 2016 asking for an integrity commissioner for local governments, but no action was taken by the province.

She noted similar motions have been brought forward at UBCM over the past three years.

While larger cities like Vancouver and Surrey have created their own ethics commissioners, Dilworth said smaller municipalities simply do not have the resources.

She recalled her past experiences on the former council, in which she and Lahti were both often a minority vote, when former mayor Rob Vagromov was charged with sexual assault in 2018.

Dilworth said the provincial government has established their own conflict of interest office for MLAs and staff.

“It’s time that they support regional and municipal governments with the same,” Dilworth said. “Our own Port Moody council could have benefited through such an entity during its most recent tenure, as some of us can attest to.”

Coun. Kyla Knowles agreed, stating the previous majority slate on council denied the minority’s call for the appointment of an ethics commissioner after Vagramov was charged.

She ascribed the recent accusations regarding the alleged illegal meeting to Lurbiecki, and said she was frustrated by “unchecked bad behavior” concerning “misleading the public, undermining the work of council and stymieing our ability to work together.”

Along the same lines, Coun. Samantha Agtarap said she hoped any ethic commissioner would set guidelines for investigation to prevent “vexatious and frivolous complaints” intended to cause “consternation and doubt amongst our community.”

She said any office should help limit unfounded accusations, whether that be from a council member or the public.

“It is unethical behavior to allege and insinuate wrongdoing and then fail to follow up words with actions,” Agtarap said.

Lahti said she has a meeting scheduled with the Minister of Municipal Affairs next month, and she plans to broach the issue.

Patrick Penner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Tri-Cities Dispatch