Surrey City Councillor Linda Annis is worried that changes to the way the city’s ethics commissioner investigates will “lead to less transparency” in government.
She’s concerned about a suspension of investigations until election day, October 15.
The vote on a corporate report regarding the Code of Conduct bylaw passed with Councillors Annis, Jack Hundial and Brenda Locke opposed on April 11, according to a recording of the meeting.
On April 11, the amended bylaw received three readings and will be considered for final adoption at the next council meeting.
The five “yes” votes came from Mayor Doug McCallum and the four remaining members of Safe Surrey.
Once the amendment is approved, Surrey’s ethics commissioner, Reece Harding, will be unable to accept new complaints until the next municipal election.
The Safe Surrey bloc voted to suspend Council ethics oversight until after October’s election – unlike other jurisdictions. The SS bloc has not endorsed transparency or accountability to Surrey taxpayers. There’s no reason to do this. What’s being hidden?https://t.co/B7YF837bip
— Linda Annis (@LindaAnnisBC) April 12, 2022
Annis says stopping the intake of complaints to the Ethics Commissioner on April 12 is “completely inappropriate” and “not in the best interest of the residents.”
“It doesn’t allow them to voice their concerns if they think council members are acting inappropriately against the code of conduct and conversely, also for council members to ensure we’re all abiding by ethics,” she says.
Mayor Doug McCallum had proposed a motion for a moratorium on ethics investigations in January but then withdrew it before the council could consider the motion.
“If you refer back to our January council meeting, this very issue came up then and there was such backlash from the residents of Surrey that the mayor actually pulled it from the agenda item. And here we go again, presenting it just a few months later,” says Annis.
She says the Ethics Commissioner should be left to do what he does best: providing oversight and enforcing the code of conduct councillors must abide by.
Annis also opposes amendments to the code of conduct, which she says would restrict the Ethics Commissioner’s access to documents dealt with in closed council.
“There has been ongoing concern from the residents of Surrey, and not specifically just to the Ethics Commission and Code of Conduct, but about having an open and transparent Council, and this is just one more thing that I think residents of Surrey find very offensive,” she says.
The idea that anyone on City Council would turn a blind eye to ethics complaints for the next six months is stunning & shows a complete lack of respect for Surrey residents. The Commissioner needs independence to do his job all year, even in the months leading up to an election.
— Linda Annis (@LindaAnnisBC) April 11, 2022
One more change she disapproves of removes conflicts of interest for mayors or councillors and their families, friends, and businesses.
To Annis, “these changes look and feel like politicians are trying to avoid any kind of transparency prior to election day.”
In a recording of the council meeting on April 11, Councillor Brenda Locke also weighed in.
“The issue of the integrity of this place and the whole issue around public access should be open and fluid to the public. This is their house. This is their information, after all, and I think protecting the integrity of all of our offices — both Council and Mayor — is critical,” she said.
She added she “can not support a six-month window.”
Councillor Hundial defended the importance of the ethics commissioner having access to city files, among other points. He suggested a 90-day window for suspending complaint intakes in the future.
“For me, it’s a little conflicting. I do think there’s some progress in this proposed amendment, but certainly, it’s not everything I’d like to see, unfortunately, without the ability to have division among several points,” he said.
“Unfortunately, I will not be supporting it.”
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Councillor Doug Elford did support the recommendations, saying other places around Canada have suspended complaint intakes for similar periods of time.
“We’re not doing anything new here,” he said.
Surrey is no stranger to receiving criticism for lacking transparency.
In early September, the Surrey Police Vote campaign filed a complaint against Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum, alleging possible intimidation and interference of volunteers collecting signatures for a petition that called for a democratic referendum on policing in Surrey.
This is because he had been charged with public mischief after claiming his foot was run over in a parking lot last year.
Mayor Doug McCallum could not accommodate requests for an interview, city staff told Daily Hive Vancouver on April 12.