Citizens committee released report in May just before provincial election. (THE NEWS/files)

Maple Ridge citizen’s committee told to register as election advertiser

Pre-election ad about report on homeless shelter drew attention of Elections BC

All Christine Bickle wanted to do was help the community by finding a location for a supportive housing complex and homeless shelter in Maple Ridge.

But almost a year later, the experience has shaken her and left her more reluctant to help out next time.

Bickle was chair of the citizen’s committee appointed by then-Liberal MLAs Doug Bing and Marc Dalton in March to recommend a location for the housing project. After scouring the city, the volunteer group identified several possible locations, focusing on one in particular, and issued a report on the topic, just before the May 9 provincial election.

The group, though, didn’t want its efforts to be lost in the election and under the name Maple Ridge Citizens Voice, took out an ad in the May 3 issue of The Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News a week before the election.

The ad explained the highlights of the report, noting that the shelter shouldn’t be low barrier, shouldn’t be located in the downtown, nor be near homes and that curfews should be in place.

“We took it upon ourselves, we’ve done this work, we have a recommendation. How do we get it out there? So we placed the ad and apparently we violated the Election Act in doing that,” Bickle said.

“If we had waited until after the election, this wouldn’t have happened.”

The group didn’t know that Elections B.C. considered the ad to be election advertising because it addressed the issue of housing and shelter, with which Elections B.C. said the Liberal MLAs had associated themselves.

“None of us knew that. We didn’t know the rules. How would we know that?” Bickle asked.

She said the group operated independently of the MLAs, and had no communication with them as they tried to find a location for a shelter.

“We had no direction.”

But someone from the B.C. NDP complained and Elections B.C. wrote to the committee members, asking them to register as advertising sponsors under the Election Act.

Under the B.C. Election Act, any organization that sponsored election ads has to register as an advertising sponsor with the chief electoral officer. Penalties under the act ranged from fines of up to $10,000, and a year in jail, or both.

B.C. Elections sent the committee two e-mails in May and a follow-up letter in June, asking the group to register as an advertising sponsor.

Committee member Jesse Stretch said he was told that the members of the committee were being asked to register as lobbyists, to which they objected.

“We’re not lobbyists. We’re a group of citizens … drawn together by the previous MLAs with a task, and we did it. And the new government wants to incarcerate us for it?”

He said he never received a hard copy of the letter from Elections B.C.

He said the advertisement didn’t support any party.

“We put together a proposal and we’re coming forward with it. Nowhere in there does it say ‘vote Liberal or vote NDP or vote Bing/Dalton …’

“I can only speak for myself here, but I said no to registering as a lobbyist strictly as a matter of principle. I, in no way, performed my duties on this committee in an attempt to lobby anyone for anything and I will not confess guilt to something I did not do,” Stretch said.

“It was more confusing, and insulting really. Here we are volunteering our time and effort for the community and you want to punish us for that?”

The case went to Supreme Court in Victoria on Dec. 1, where the judge ordered the committee to register as an election advertising sponsor, file a report with Elections B.C., and to pay court costs.

Bickle, as committee chair, volunteered to paid for the ad herself and later the court costs, adding up to about $3,000.

Stretch said the committee has agreed to do that rather than continue the fight and pay thousands in costs or possible fines.

“I’m not pleased with it, but as far as I’m concerned with that, it was the lesser of two evils – get it over with. It was a paid advertisement, technically, if you want to call it that, so fine.”

Pitt Meadows Mayor John Becker, a lawyer, represented the group for free during the dispute over the summer and said the decision will discourage other citizens’ groups from getting involved. The group could have forwarded its report to the MLAs, but that could have undermined the credibility of the committee, he pointed out.

“This was a local issue, a local community committee, functioning as volunteers, on a complete non-partisan basis, to provide recommendations …” Becker said.

It wasn’t a group campaigning against Site C or ICBC, he added, but a local group giving input to a local process.

“I think what it will do, it will certainly put a chill on the already-limited appetite of citizens to get involved with the political process on what they believe to be a non-partisan basis.”

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