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West Van council waffles on ethical code

Should council members be asked to abide by a written code of conduct? That's still up for debate in West Vancouver
West Vancouver municipal council is being asked to decide whether they will adopt a code of conduct. | Paul McGrath / North Shore News files

West Vancouver council has taken a step towards adopting a code of conduct that would govern the behaviour of elected members both in and out of the council chamber. But its passage is by no means guaranteed.

The previous West Van council vociferously debated and ultimately rejected adopting a similar bylaw in 2021. Since then, the province has required all councils to decide within six months of their being sworn in whether to adopt a code. If a council opts not to by the May 7 deadline, they must put into writing for the province and the public their reasons why.

District staff recommended that council proceed with a 15-page document addressing such things as harassment, abuse of office, decorum, conflict of interest, social media, handling of confidential or personal information, interference with staff or committees and preventing the outside activities of council members from undermining their integrity on council.

Before they began accepting public comments on the proposed code, Mayor Mark Sager warned that “I do not believe there is general support for the code of conduct as presented,” he said.

Coun. Linda Watt said she wasn’t opposed to adopting a code of conduct, but said she hadn’t had enough time to review the one before them.

Sager also suggested that council members would benefit from having more time to discuss it amongst themselves, but Coun. Nora Gambioli countered that suggestion itself was problematic as official debate is supposed to happen within open council meetings.

“[The code] asks us simply to behave with integrity, with decorum and dignity, and not to harass or defame staff, or volunteers or each other. We are held to a high standard, but I don’t think it seems like too much to ask,” she said, noting that in her 11 years on council, she’d witnessed many behaviours that would be in breach of the code. “If we’ve got nothing to hide, then why would we not do this?”

Coun. Sharon Thompson disagreed, adding that when council last debated a code of conduct, they were told that it was ultimately for the mayor to manage council’s conduct. Thompson added that council should be given the chance to prove they can conduct themselves appropriately without a list of written rules demanding it of them.

“I don’t recall anyone mentioning anything about not wanting to be accountable, or that we had things to hide,” she said. “And actually, quite frankly, I think it’s a sad day that we have to rely on policy to incentivize good behaviour. Leadership incentivizes good behaviour – good leadership. And if we have to rely on policy to do that, then you need to think a little harder about who you’re electing.”

Coun. Peter Lambur offered a compromise motion – passing only just first reading of the bylaw and bringing the matter back for further debate and possible adoption.

Of the three members of the public who came forward to speak on the matter, all urged council to adopt the code.

Gary Powroznik cautioned council that virtually every organization or municipality similar in size to West Vancouver would be expected to have a code of conduct if for nothing else, their own legal protection. Being the only municipality without one would make West Van “stick out like a sore thumb,” he added.

“If you don’t have the toolkit, you individually could be liable for your actions if you’re beyond, let’s call it, normal business practices,” he said. “To ignore this, I think you do it at great peril.”

Jatinder Sidhu added that the public should expect nothing less from their elected leaders.

“It’s exceptionally important that you demonstrate … that you are not in any way special or better than any other regulated professions or sectors,” he said. “You have a number of responsibilities to the public at large and the public need to feel that you are accountable, not just once every four years at the ballot box.”

Lambur's compromise motion passed. The code of conduct will be back before council on April 24.

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