Katherine Wagner

Katherine Wagner

Citizen Ink: Maple Ridge council bylaw change undermines democratic principles

Challenging politicians part of democratic process

During my first term as a Maple Ridge school trustee, I was shocked to learn that all decisions of the school board were reported to the public as unanimous, no matter the actual vote split. A local bylaw was held up and the rationale explained – it’s important for the public to see us operating as one voice.

That made little sense to me. Why elect seven people with seven perspectives and opinions, only to pretend we all thought the same? I proposed a change to the bylaw and it was readily passed.

Sometimes, bylaws become outdated and they should all be regularly revisited.

Thus, I didn’t pay much attention to Item 1131on the Dec. 10 Maple Ridge council agenda – a council procedure amending bylaw. First, second and third readings carried.

On the surface, the changes seemed like innocuous common sense– housekeeping updates – but the devil is often in the details.

Fourth reading occurred at the Jan. 14 Maple Ridge council meeting, and Coun. Kiersten Duncan raised an objection to bulletin five (of seven) under Section 39.

Section 39 said that during a council meeting, a person must not engage in bullying or harassing behaviour in respect of a council member, government official or a city employee, which includes but is not limited to: (Bulletin No. 5, under Sec. 39:) “Questioning the motives of a Council Member, Government Official or City employee.”

Coun. Duncan made it clear she did not object to the stated overall intent of the bylaw.

Her concerns were met with silence. None of the other six members of council offered a counterpoint rationale for why they supported fourth and final reading or specifically, the challenged clause. Six voted in favour, Duncan voted against.

She summarizes her position in a statement on her Facebook page, “I think it is very important that in a democracy citizens should have the freedom to express their concerns if they feel a politician is in a conflict of interest on an item and members of council should have the same privilege.”

A long-time local politician who I served with for many years, was fond of pointing out that public perception is reality.

Fair or unfair, challenging our elected representatives to publicly address perceptions of conflict of interest is a vital part of upholding the key principles of integrity, accountability, responsibility and transparency that underlay our democratic institutions.

A few clicks of a mouse reveals a tale of two cities.

Pitt Meadows’ council code of conduct is 13 pages long and clearly defines conflict of interest while underscoring the need to recognize and mitigate it. Section 5.7 b states “A conflict exists when an individual is, or could be, influenced, or appear to be influenced, by a personal interest, financial (pecuniary) or otherwise, when carrying out their public duty. Personal interest can include direct or indirect pecuniary interest, bias, pre-judgment, close-mindedness, or undue influence.”

The Pitt Meadows code of conduct specifically asks, “Can the decision or conduct be justified?”

In Maple Ridge, it seems, that justification will only occur if the council member in question chooses to speak up without being asked. The act of asking is now the act that is punishable, undermining all four key democratic principles.

Within the same set of bylaw amendments, Maple Ridge council has also moved the public question period back to the end of council meetings.

This reverses the implementation of recommendation 33 of the Open Government Report and Recommendations of the Citizens’ Representative Working Group, (which group I chaired) which reads: Move the question period to the beginning of the meeting to allow for questions of clarification etc. before the meeting takes place, or add an additional question period at the beginning of the meeting.

Pitt Meadows city council bylaws place public questions near the beginning of their public council meetings, immediately following approval of the agenda.

One of the great things about municipal councils is that they bring together diverse voices, representing a range of community perspectives, to make decisions on our behalf.

However, if the majority uses procedural rules to silence dissenting voices and limit public input, our system is not working as it was intended.

The community of Maple Ridge has an unfortunate track record, especially over the last decade, of bullying and harassment of some politicians and their supporters. To our shame, this is well-documented in local, provincial and national media.

Former Mayor Nicole Read was subject to horrendous personal abuse on social media and while out in public.

While it is not always possible to influence those who express support, it would have been refreshing to see all members of the current council condemning these cowardly tactics during their protracted campaigns for (re)election.

Please don’t mistake that I’m arguing against increased civility.

Most emphatically, I’m not.

Our institutions need well-written codes of conduct and rules of engagement. What I’m concerned about is the fist hidden in a velvet glove.

– Katherine Wagner is a member of the citizens’ task force on transparency, a former school trustee and member of Golden Ears Writers.

municipal politics