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Conflict of interest: Court action aims to remove Vancouver city councillor from office

Green Party’s Michael Wiebe facing challenge from residents over conflict-of-interest case
Green Party Coun. Michael Wiebe will face a court challenge by citizens who want him removed from office over a conflict-of-interest case related to the city’s temporary patio program. File photo Jennifer Gauthier
A petition will be filed in B.C. Supreme Court today in an attempt to remove Vancouver Green Party city councillor Michael Wiebe from office, according to a lawyer representing a Vancouver resident who requested the court action.

Wes Mussio said Friday he was retained by Michael Redmond, whose complaint earlier this year triggered a conflict-of-interest investigation against Wiebe over his vote in support of the city’s temporary patio licence program.

Mussio said Redmond’s name, along with up to 14 other electors in Vancouver, including NPA president David Mawhinney, will be on the petition, which he intended to file in court by Friday afternoon.

“It’s pretty devastating for Mr. Wiebe,” Mussio said.

The action is one of the options outlined in a report conducted by lawyer Raymond Young into Redmond’s allegation that Wiebe’s vote in May in favour of a temporary patio program for restaurants, bars and breweries put the councillor in breach of the city’s Code of Conduct.

Ties to restaurants that received temporary patio licences

Wiebe, whose business interests are listed in his financial disclosure statement on the city’s website, owns Eight ½ restaurant in Mount Pleasant and is an investor in Portside Pub in Gastown.

Both businesses received patio licences, with Wiebe among the first 14 business operators announced June 5 by the city. Redmond filed his complaint June 29 to the offices of Mayor Kennedy Stewart and city manager Sadhu Johnston.

Young, who was appointed by Stewart and agreed upon by Redmond and Wiebe to conduct an investigation, concluded that Wiebe “is disqualified from holding office until the next election” in October 2022.

He also said “it would be appropriate for councillor Wiebe to resign his seat on council,” and that if Wiebe chooses not to voluntarily resign, the Vancouver Charter allows 10 or more electors in the city to petition the court, or have the city apply for a court order to remove him.

Mussio said he wrote “a very polite letter” to Wiebe last week in an attempt to head-off court action.

“I said, ‘Listen, if you don’t want to air this out in public, just do the right thing and stand down,’” he said, noting Wiebe rejected the request.

“I feel like I’m in a good place"

Wiebe told Glacier Media Thursday that he hired a lawyer and intended to fight whatever court challenge might be launched against him. Wiebe has repeatedly said he was acting in good faith in voting for the temporary patio program, and that his support was aimed at helping hundreds of businesses hit financially hard by the pandemic.

“I feel like I’m in a good place,” he said. “I will continue to operate and represent the voters that voted for me. I have had a lot of support over the last few weeks from every type of organization, and people from every political party saying that they want to continue to see my voice at city hall.”

In the days following news of Young’s findings against Wiebe, the councillor issued a statement in September saying that “if I inadvertently made an error in this matter, I am deeply sorry.”

In another twist to his case, the Vancouver Sun reported this week that one of the mayor’s co-chiefs of staff, Anita Zaenker, told Wiebe that he should second the motion on the report in May that led to the vote to allow the patio licences.

It was that vote that triggered Redmond’s complaint, which went before Zaenker’s boss —the mayor, making for an awkward position for Stewart. The mayor got involved because the city’s Code of Conduct policy dictates that a sitting mayor must appoint a third party to investigate the allegations.

Stewart has not commented publicly on the status of the report, or whether he would take further action, but Zaenker confirmed Thursday the mayor has concluded his review.

“He’s accepted the findings of the investigator, and his role in the Code of Conduct complaint is now concluded,” she told Glacier Media. “The mayor is taking no further action on this.”

Group text talk

In explaining her reason to have Wiebe second the motion on the report, Zaenker said council has a group text chat set up to facilitate the flow of information among elected officials.

“So the way I engage in that group text chat is in the capacity of my role as mayor’s chief of staff to help facilitate the smooth and effective flow of business during council meetings, particularly when the mayor is chairing,” she said.

“What I said in that group text is I suggested that to return to the favour to staff — who worked so quickly and so hard to get reports to council — that we return the favour and aim to move this motion quickly and pass it, so we could get on with the business of supporting restaurants and bars in their important economic recovery work.”

Added Zaenker: “I suggested that [NPA Coun. Sarah] Kirby-Yung move it, and Wiebe second it — just because I like to try and avoid confusion around who’s going to move it and who’s going to second it. And I knew that this was a report that was of a high level of interest to council.”

At the time, Zaenker said she was not aware that Wiebe was in any conflict and that he “had not declared any conflict, and hence I just suggested that he second the motion, given that he also expressed a lot of interest in this area.”

It’s not the job of a chief of staff to assess or evaluate who may or may not be in a conflict-of-interest, she said, but acknowledged that it was common knowledge that Wiebe owned Eight ½ restaurant.

“I don’t think about members’ conflict,” Zaenker said. “It’s the council member’s duty to declare a conflict. So the question is, ‘Why did Wiebe then not declare a conflict, and why did he vote on these things?’ That’s a question for councillor Wiebe.”

Wiebe's vote would have not affected council's decision to proceed with the patio program; it was unanimous.

Mussio, meanwhile, has previous political connections in the city, having served briefly on the NPA board in 2018. His wife, Penny, was a candidate for the Coalition Vancouver party led by Wai Young in the 2018 election.

Mussio said his political views are irrelevant to the case against Wiebe, saying his involvement is strictly related to his work as a lawyer, despite what other political parties might conclude.

“I’m just the lawyer.”

“This is not about me, it’s about the electors,” he said. “I’m just the lawyer.”

The NPA is the only party that has called for Wiebe to be removed from office, with its president — David Mawhinney, who is one of the electors on the petition — demanding his resignation.

None of the NPA’s councillors have commented publicly on the case.

Redmond is a retired lawyer who volunteered with the NPA in its 2018 municipal campaign but told Glacier Media in a previous interview that his complaint was not driven by politics, but for the need for politicians to uphold the law.

Asked to comment Friday on the court action, Redmond confirmed a petition would be filed in court in an attempt to remove Wiebe from office.

“Since it is now before the court, I do not feel it would be appropriate to make any further comments on the matter until there is a decision,” he said.

Mussio noted the backlog in cases related to COVID-19 and others related to the Insurance Corporation of B.C., but was confident a trial would be held well before the next election in October 2022.

Asked whether he thinks he will win the case against Wiebe, he said:

“I don’t take on losers, I only try to take on winning cases and this one seems to be so plainly obvious,” he said.

Update: Glacier Media checked with the court registry at the end of day Friday and the petition has yet to be filed.

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