Port Moody seeks city ethics commissioner

After controversy, council decides to revisit a call for more oversight that was dismissed in 2019

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Following concerns about private meetings with developers and unspecified bullying and harassment, Port Moody city council is looking for an ethics commissioner.

The unanimous call for a commissioner was approved at council Oct. 24, following the introduction of the motion earlier in the month by Coun. Haven Lurbiecki. Speaking at council’s Oct. 10 meeting, Lurbiecki said that “municipal councils are self-regulating bodies, judge and jury. That means the truth is whatever it says it is.”

An ethics commissioner would be a neutral third party in investigating issues of legality, conflicts of interest, bullying, and code of conduct violations. Few municipalities in Metro Vancouver have an ethics commissioner in place. Surrey was the first city to implement one in 2020.

Lurbiecki said that without an ethics commissioner, individuals in government, especially women, don’t have a place to turn to after experiencing bullying and harassment. She also noted a controversial accusation made during an Oct. 3 public hearing that four councillors had met privately last year with a senior developer in an encounter she said should be looked into as a potential “illegal meeting.”

“My clear understanding is that a quorum, a majority of a council, is not able to meet in private to discuss matters that would then be considered at the council table,” she said.

“If four people … were to get together in any place and talk about business that we’ll be voting on … in theory, you could already decide the outcome.”

Regarding concerns of individual cases of bullying or harassment at council, Lurbiecki said she did not want to name names.

A research project by The Feminist Campaign School of Women and funded by Women and Gender Equality Canada found that 31 per cent of surveyed female municipal councillors in B.C. reported being verbally harassed by council colleagues. Another 13 per cent reported being threatened, and seven per cent reported sexual harassment. The survey took place between April 2022 and May 2023 with over 100 participants.

Melanie Rushworth, director of the communications, outreach, and planning division at the Federal Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, said ethics commissioners are vital.

“The primary function of an ethics commissioner is to help elected or appointed officials avoid conflicts of interest, which are primarily financial conflicts of interest or something that they would do that would further their private interest or that of a family member,” she said.

“There was a very prominent case here in Ottawa of a councillor who had harassed and sexually harassed either people on his staff or people that he was interviewing for positions.”

In the Ottawa example, the local news media highlighted the lack of power city council had to stop him from coming into work and from being paid.

Port Moody Coun. Kyla Knowles, one of the councillors who met with the developer last year, supported the call for a commissioner.

“I too have been disheartened by recent accusations of potential corruption and unethical behavior being leveled by this body by a member of council,” she said. “As such, I join the chorus of my colleagues here tonight asking for an independent investigation of all breaches to our council code of conduct.”

Coun. Diana Dilworth said she had called for an ethics commissioner in 2019, but her move was rejected by the council of the day.

“One only has to look at media across the province to see that there are local elected officials and councils that are struggling with issues that could best be managed or guided by an external agency,” she said.

A timeline for the implementation of an ethics commissioner has not been set.

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