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Column: Vancouver finally hiring integrity commissioner to oversee council

Will such a move see a return to polygraph testing of elected officials?
council
A budget of $200,000 is set aside in the City of Vancouver’s 2022 operating budget for council to hire an integrity commissioner. File photo Jennifer Gauthier
It appears the City of Vancouver is going to finally hire an integrity commissioner.

That bit of news shouldn’t come as a surprise to those municipal government enthusiasts familiar with council’s decision in January on the need to hire a commissioner.

That decision was made simultaneously with council approving an update to the city’s outdated code of conduct for elected officials and advisory board members.

What’s new here is that almost one year later, $200,000 is set aside in the 2022 operating budget to hire a commissioner, who is expected to be named sooner than later; apologies for the vague and cliched time reference here, but the city won’t give me a date.

My money is on lawyer Lisa Southern getting the gig.

That semi-informed hunch is based on the fact Southern was appointed the city’s first ad hoc integrity commissioner in March. At the time, she was retained for a one-off review related to a complaint over a tweet posted on the Twitter account of Mayor Kennedy Stewart.

The complainant, who was not named, alleged Stewart criticized the civic NPA political party for allegations that surfaced in the media alleging one of the party’s board members held extremist views and support for hate groups.

In the end, Southern ruled there was no conflict of interest, which prompted Stewart to issue a news release saying he was vindicated. He described the complaint as “a frivolous attempt to muzzle me and my office from standing up for the values of diversity, equality, equity and respect.”

For the record, the NPA board member in question denied the allegations against him.

Wiebe hired lawyer

Southern, as far as I know, has yet to be retained for any other work at the city involving council. At the same time, I know there have been complaints lodged against councillors, which can trigger an internal review or investigation, no matter how frivolous.

This is why council has been keen to get a commissioner on board. Because right now, my understanding is that if the mayor or a councillor needs some advice, there aren’t many avenues available at city hall.

In the case of Coun. Michael Wiebe, who successfully defended himself in court earlier this year over a conflict of interest charge related to votes he made on the city’s temporary patio program, he used his own cash to hire a lawyer.

Having an integrity commissioner in place may have avoided such a battle.

A staff report that went before council in January said a commissioner’s duties include preliminary vetting of complaints, directing and assisting with informal resolution of complaints, investigating complaints and preparing a report to council.

Such a report would include a recommendation on an appropriate sanction, if a member has been found to have breached the code of conduct.  

“While the current code allows for the appointment of an independent investigator, the process is cumbersome, requiring consent of all parties, and does not allow the investigator to provide advice and education or build meaningful institutional knowledge,” the report said.

By the way, I reached out to Southern in an email Tuesday, but had not heard back before this column was posted. Which can either mean she’s busy and hasn’t gotten around to telling me she didn’t want or get the gig, or that she got the gig and is waiting for the city to officially announce her appointment.

Whoever the city selects, that person will not be working full-time in an office at city hall, but retained under contract and called upon when needed.

Lie detector test

In the meantime, some history to leave you with about the call for an integrity commissioner in Vancouver…

Way back in 2008, the city hired lawyer Richard Peck to investigate how a confidential document regarding the Olympic Village was leaked to the media.

The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason obtained the document and published a story during the 2008 civic election campaign.

The story revealed council unanimously approved a $100-million loan to ensure construction of the Olympic Village would continue.

The leak became a focal point of the campaign.

So who leaked the information? Was it a councillor? A staffer?

Peck looked into the leak as the Vancouver Police Department conducted a simultaneous investigation that involved several councillors agreeing to a polygraph test, which was quite incredible news at the time.

In the end, no charges were laid and the source of the leak was never found. Peck, however, recommended the city hire an integrity commissioner. He said nothing about the need for future polygraph testing of elected officials, but I guess that’s kind of my job.

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

@Howellings