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West Vancouver council votes down respectful communication bylaw

'For us on council, knowingly putting our staff in a position of receiving inappropriate communications with no recourse, which is the current situation, is a dereliction of our duty.'
On Monday, July 12, 2021 District of West Vancouver council voted down a pair of proposed policies meant to ensure respectful communication from the public and govern the behaviour of councillors. file photo Cindy Goodman, North Shore News

Despite District of West Vancouver Mayor Mary-Ann Booth calling on council to "unite" and support municipal representatives by enacting new rules to help ensure respectful communication from the public, the majority of councillors didn't think it was necessary. 

Council majority didn't want to add any new rules to their lives or the public's at the July 12 general meeting, voting down two proposed policies, one that would have governed councillors’ behaviour and another that would have set guidelines for communication between the public and municipal representatives. 

After a lengthy and fiery debate, council voted 4-3 against the proposed respectful communication bylaw. The bylaw was essentially created to stop "inappropriate communication" and ensure a "safe, respectful, and positive environment" in the workplace.  

In the proposed bylaw, inappropriate communication is defined as communication that a person knew or reasonably ought to have known would cause the subject to feel humiliated or intimidated; is discriminatory, threatening, violent, or defamatory; or a pattern of communications that are frivolous, vexatious, or made with malicious intent.

The bylaw that went before council closely resembled the district's respectful behaviour bylaw adopted in 2018 for district facilities, mostly rec facilities, which created the option to ban unruly visitors who were being abusive or threatening to the public or staff at the venues.

At the moment, there’s no equivalent action for written or verbal abuse that occurs electronically or via telephone to staff, said Mark Panneton, director of legislative services for the district – which is the bulk of communication these days given the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said the proposed bylaw was simply to make sure communication was in a manner that was conducive to dialogue and not laden with “expletives, insults or threats.”

“In other words, at the risk of being a bit corny about it, it's about putting the ‘civil’ back in civil discourse,” Panneton said at the meeting.

In a nutshell, under the proposed bylaw, if a staff member received inappropriate communications an incident report would be filed or the communication would be sent to their manager who would then decide whether further action is necessary, which could result in a warning letter being sent to the individual. In the worst circumstances, the incident would be forwarded to the divisional director, which could result in the person in question being limited in their communications with the district or cut off entirely. The person in question would then be able to appeal the decision if they disagreed.

“I'd like to note for certainty that the proposed bylaw would not apply to any communication that expresses disagreement in a plain and respectful manner,” Panneton said. “That's not the purpose of this bylaw. Staff are fully cognizant of every Canadian’s charter rights.”

Panneton said while most dialogue with the community was civil and respectful, staff were dealing with situations where members of the public were being called “stupid fu**s, corrupt, and incompetent” as an example, as well as dealing with abuse from conspiracy theorists, who believed the district is “collaborating with mind-controlling individuals" or "aliens." Other abusive commentary came from anti-vaxxers with theories on COVID-19, as well as anti-Semitic individuals.

Six residents called in to have their say on the bylaw with three in support, noting that staff deserved to be protected and respected in a world that was becoming more and more hostile. Those opposed to the proposed policy believed adding the rules was unlikely to encourage open and frank communication with staff, and the definition of inappropriate communication was too broad, raising concerns with the terms "frivolous and vexatious." One caller labelled the bylaw "muzzling free speech."

Coun. Nora Gambioli, who was supportive of the bylaw, said the public was not aware of what staff dealt with on a daily basis, and in her almost 10 years on council she had witnessed communications with staff that were hostile, and it was becoming more and more common.

“It is sad that we have to consider legislating protection against bad manners,” she said. “But here we are.

“Our staff do not deserve a lot of the feedback or inappropriate communication that they get. There are some really, really unreasonable people out there and West Vancouver is not immune. We are not, in fact, the lovely community all the time that we'd like to think we are.”

In response to community concerns, Gambioli said the proposed bylaw “has absolutely nothing to do with muzzling discourse.”

“Criticizing government and government policy is of course OK. But doing it in an intimidating and rude manner is simply not OK. For us on council, knowingly putting our staff in a position of receiving inappropriate communications with no recourse, which is the current situation, is a dereliction of our duty.”

Coun. Craig Cameron broke it down further, saying that all the proposed bylaw would really be doing was setting “a really basic, minimum standard” and “stopping abuse.”

“No abuse, no threats, no intimidation, no expletives. This is basic stuff. This is the stuff we teach your kids in elementary school,” he said.

Cameron also suggested removing 'Section C' of the inappropriate communication definition which says "frivolous and vexatious" to ease community members' minds, which Panneton was happy to do. 

However, Coun. Sharon Thompson said the fundamental reason she didn’t support the policy was that she didn't think it would make a difference.

“They're not going to change human behaviour,” she said. “The only thing that changes human behaviour is how these communications are handled in the moment.”

Thompson suggested instead, as an individual and or organization, to “exemplify the behaviour you want” and “have a respectful discussion, even if someone disagrees.”

“There are all kinds of just common sense, and good social skills that can calm these waters,” she said.

Coun. Bill Soprovich agreed with Thompson and said that in his time he’d dealt with these situations through conversation and that there were already enough processes in place. He suggested that if there were individuals being consistently rude and displaying inappropriate behaviour that “staff should not answer them at all” because “they’re not forced to.”

From Coun. Marcus Wong’s perspective, an angry resident is like a “temperature gauge or barometer” to know what’s going on in the community, and in his experience it would make him ask himself “how can I help bring a resolution to that?”

“We certainly want to create a workplace where people can speak freely, but also aren't being harassed and they can feel safe,” he said. “So, I think there is a balance that can be struck, but as the current proposed bylaw currently sits, I'm not sure I really like it.”

‘There should be no opposition to this’

In contrast, Mayor Mary-Ann Booth said she didn’t accept that the status quo was working, indicating that supporting the bylaw showed support for employees.

“I think it's interesting that we're actually debating a respectful communication bylaw,” she said. “There should be no opposition to this. We should all unite around this."

She said while “99.9 per cent of residents are really good people and very respectful,” the few that aren't seriously affected staff members’ mental health and their well-being.

“If there wasn't a problem, if something wasn't broken, we wouldn't be here, and that's a given,” Booth said.

While she strongly suggested that council “stand up for their employees, stand up for the law and stand up for their values about respect,” her words fell on deaf ears and Soprovich, Wong, Thompson, and Coun. Peter Lambur all proceeded to vote against the bylaw.

Cameron added he “couldn’t believe” the four councillors’ decisions, adding he was “very disappointed.”

“So, what's the message now? What's the message majority of council is sending our staff? ‘You're on your own. I don't support you.’”

Proposed code of conduct ‘overkill’

Just like the majority of council didn’t find it necessary to introduce new rules for residents when it comes to communicating, the same councillors also didn’t find it necessary to approve a code of conduct to govern their own behaviour.

Creating a code of conduct for councillors had been on the district’s to-do list since the fall of 2020, when Cameron made a crude erection joke on Twitter, aimed at Vancouver billionaire Chip Wilson, which offended community members. Only Booth, Cameron and Gambioli showed support for the new rules.

At the time, council called on staff to come up with a code of conduct to prevent similar incidents. 

The proposed code of conduct bylaw put forward would have set behavioural expectations for council, addressing social media, conflicts of interest, interactions with the public and other ethical matters, and had potential penalties that council members could face if they breached the code.

The aim was to set standards to “build and inspire the public’s trust and confidence in local government.”

“What this entire bylaw tries to do is really put into writing what we've kind of taken as convention for a very long time and provide clear guidelines so that council members and the public and staff know what the behavioural expectations are, and are clear as to what the potential ramifications are for breaching them,” Panneton said. 

“Because, right now, that is all a bit of a grey area.”

Panneton said incorporating a code of conduct was emerging as a “best practice among municipalities” listing a number of councils that had them, including the District of North Vancouver, and cities of Richmond, Port Moody, New Westminster and Vancouver, among others.

Under the proposed bylaw, councillors would have had to hold each other to account and make rulings on their fellow councillors’ actions.

“At the end of the day, council has to decide what standard they would like their behavior to be held to,” Panneton said.

Coun. Bill Soprovich described the code of conduct as “overkill” on expectations councillors were already largely aware of when they take their oath.

“There is a concern to me that this is too prescriptive,” he said. “Almost putting a zipper on your mouth for fear that you might get an allegation from somebody and not know why.”  

Lambur said he sensed there was a “level of discomfort” with some of the aspects of the code of conduct, and while he thought there was value in having one he thought council needed to “spend a little more time discussing it.”

Wong added that the bulk of the code was “very good” but he had concerns about the grievances process and thought it was too “complicated.”  He also said as each of the councillors worked closely together, they each had conflicts of interest with one another making the ruling of a “punishment” for breaking the code unfair.

“It's not an impartial decision,” Wong said.

Booth said she was “surprised” the bylaw failed given it was what councillors had asked for back in November.

Cameron expressed his disappointment in the evening’s events, saying he felt the whole process was a “waste of time” for Panneton who worked to come up with both bylaws, given councillors' final decisions.

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.