Surrey council’s recent decision “undermines the very purpose of the code of conduct,” wrote BC Ombudsperson Jay Chalke.

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The majority of Surrey council has rejected a plea from BC’s ombudsperson on Monday night not to follow through on a controversial move to suspend the city’s ethics commissioner from processing complaints until after this year’s municipal election.

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In a letter obtained by Postmedia News, BC Ombudsperson Jay Chalke expressed his concern and disappointment to Surrey’s mayor and councilors over the majority’s decisions in recent weeks to amend the city’s code of conduct in ways that he said reduced transparency and accountability.

At a public council meeting on April 11, Surrey council voted five-to-three on a series of amendments to the city’s code of conduct bylaw. Chalke wrote he was “disappointed” council did not adopt recommendations from the Surrey ethics commissioner office (SECO) to make more information public about code of conduct complaints and investigations, instead deciding to keep such matters in closed meetings.

Council also voted on April 11, against the SECO recommendation, to place a six-month moratorium on new investigations from April 12 until after this October’s municipal election is over.

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The decision was supported by a majority of councilors aligned with Mayor Doug McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition, and has since generated controversy.

Councilors Linda Annis and Brenda Locke spoke on Monday night against the changes but were outvoted.

Annis said it was wrong that the ethics commissioner would not have access to in camera meetings, while Locke said the changes cut the ability of the public to scrutinize council.

People in the crowd who applauded the comments were told by McCallum that they would be tossed out if they didn’t stop.

Chalke, BC’s Ombudsperson since 2015, took the rare step last week of writing to McCallum and all eight councillors, “to express my concern” about council’s April 11 vote, and urge them not to finalize the bylaw.

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Council is within its rights to amend the code of conduct by law, Chalke wrote. However, council’s decision to keep more matters secret “undermines the very purpose of the code of conduct,” Chalke wrote, namely its emphasis on “the principles of transparency and accountability; by this decision, council has plainly decided not to maximize public awareness of SECO’s investigation reports.”

Mayor Doug McCallum at Surrey City Hall in Surrey, BC., April 25, 2022.
Mayor Doug McCallum at Surrey City Hall in Surrey, BC., April 25, 2022. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

A moratorium on new complaints before an election is not necessarily inappropriate, Chalke wrote, but he was “deeply concerned” that Surrey’s moratorium was both too broad — covering all new complaints instead of giving the commissioner discretion to determine which complaints to investigate — and too long, extending the moratorium from the 46 days recommended by the commissioner to six months, starting April 12, the day after council gave the bylaw first, second and third reading.

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In 2020, Surrey council appointed Reece Harding, a Vancouver lawyer, as the city’s — and the province’s — first municipal ethics commissioner. Reached Monday afternoon, Harding said: “I respect what mayor and council wants to do with their bylaw, and we will await the outcome of what their choices are tonight.”

A spokeswoman for McCallum said the mayor would not comment on the matter Monday.

The Office of the Ombudsperson is an independent office of the BC Legislature, which generally investigates complaints about public authorities. Reached Monday, Chalke said the step of reaching out to a municipal council and urging them on how to vote is “certainly not something we do frequently.”

“I felt it was worth recommending to the council that they not adopt the amendment,” Chalke said, “and to think about it again before doing so.”

Chalke’s letter bore Monday’s date, April 25, but he said he sent a version of it to the mayor and council last week.

Councilor Brenda Locke at Surrey City Hall in Surrey, BC., April 25, 2022.
Councilor Brenda Locke at Surrey City Hall in Surrey, BC., April 25, 2022. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

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