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A woman holds a sign near police officers watching as thousands of people gather for a peaceful demonstration in support of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet and protest against racism, injustice and police brutality, in Vancouver, on May 31, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The mayors of Victoria and Vancouver say city leaders are being hamstrung in their police reform efforts because of the conflicts created by their roles as chair of the local police boards.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said in an interview that other police board members forced him to recuse himself from a meeting last week to prevent him from speaking about a city council motion that asks the board to abolish street checks.

Under B.C.'s Police Act, mayors serve as chair of the police board, but cannot vote on any motions except to break a tie. The Vancouver Police Board’s rules say the chair may not put forward motions and must ensure consensus among the board on difficult issues. This system, Mr. Stewart said, restricts mayors from properly representing the will of their citizens in an era when city councils are trying to respond to widespread demands to overhaul policing.

“Everybody had turned a blind eye to this in the past and just kind of soldiered through, but now that there’s objections [from other board members], I can’t really do my job,” said Mr. Stewart, a political scientist who co-wrote a textbook on local government in Canada before running for office. “Other mayors who are in this position are also extremely frustrated.”

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An all-party committee of the legislature had begun work to update the Police Act, but it was halted with this week’s election call.

BC NDP Leader John Horgan, campaigning for the Oct. 24 provincial election, said the law is 45 years old and needs reform. He said he was mindful of the push across North America to redirect police funding to social programs, but that the issue is one of more money for public safety and to increase the number of mental-health workers in the field.

“That means making investments in people to help those who need it. It’s not about saying to one group of people, ‘You’re inadequate,’ " he said. "It’s about saying, ‘We’ve asked you to do more than you can do. We’re going to take some of that responsibility away and put people in place to make sure that good important work gets done.’ ”

Jas Johal of the BC Liberals and deputy committee chair, said the eight members had just heard their first witness on Monday when word of the election call came. He said in an interview that three days of testimony were scheduled, largely from senior public servants, to talk about “where they saw holes in the system” and how the act could be reformed.

“What we have lost here [is] the momentum to do good, the momentum to move forward,” he said.

In a statement, BC Greens Leader Sonia Furstenau said systemic racism has gone unaddressed for too long. She is disappointed that the snap election has paused the “important work" of the committee, and that the BC Greens would like the work to resume eventually.

Before last week’s police board meeting, Mr. Stewart said he was told by the board’s ethics adviser that because he had brought forward the motion on police checks, which garnered unanimous support at city council, he could not discuss the matter neutrally at the board. The mayor had asked the adviser before the meeting to weigh in after the governance committee decided to bar him from leading the discussion.

And now he said he is worried he may be excluded from any future meetings, including discussions on the next police budget, because he and his council tried in May to get the board to cut the Vancouver Police Department’s current budget by 1 per cent to make up for pandemic-related revenue losses across all city departments.

Police boards consist of the mayor, one member appointed by council, and up to seven others named by the provincial government.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, co-chair of the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board, said she understands the rules were drafted to prevent political interference in policing. But she suggested that mayors be allowed to sit as regular board members – rather than serving as chair – so they can offer their opinions and vote.

“It would just make everything better for everyone, it would clear up this confusion and you would not have these conflicts-of-interest conversations,” she said. “Reform will never happen unless we can be there representing the municipal interests.”

The Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board did not respond to a request for comment late this week.

Vancouver Police Board vice-chair Barj Dhahan declined an interview request, and executive director Stephanie Johanssen said she is not authorized to speak to media.

Mr. Stewart has asked the provincial Solicitor-General’s office to clarify what he and other mayors are allowed to say while chairing police board meetings.

At last week’s virtual meeting, the Vancouver board decided to discuss the city council motion on street checks further with the mayor and councillors next month, along with a request from city hall for detailed information on how the VPD conduct enforcement activity that disproportionately harms poor and vulnerable people.

The board was also set to adopt a major overhaul to its policy and procedure manual overseen by Patti Marfleet, its former executive director and a former board member who is now its governance adviser. But Mr. Stewart asked for revisions, voicing displeasure and disbelief that the new rules would further codify the chair’s strict neutrality and ensure he “respects and has confidence in the role of the police board as an organization.”

Removing his glasses, the mayor squinted into his webcam and addressed his colleagues: “If I can’t ask questions, and I can’t have an opinion, and I can’t vote, and I can’t move a motion, why would I ever show up? You’re not a participant, you’re just a bump on a log.”

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