In an apparent first for British Columbia, the province’s second-most populous city will recruit an independent ethics commissioner with powers that could include investigating allegations of misconduct by the mayor and council.
Surrey city council unanimously endorsed the idea this week, following through on an election pledge last fall by Doug McCallum, now the mayor, and supporters who won seven of eight council seats.
The plan is part of an ethics package that also includes a council code of conduct, as well as bolstering the lobbyists registry that is now voluntary and limited to the development application process.
“While the voluntary Lobbyists Registry does increase transparency, it is difficult to assess its efficacy in curtailing unethical conduct,” according to a staff report on ethics reform that council voted to receive this week.
Representatives of the Union of B.C. Municipalities said they are not aware of any similar office in the province right now though many local governments have codes of conduct.
Union president Arjun Singh said the organization is trying to decide whether there is more it can do, including asking the province to mandate, perhaps, codes of conduct for municipalities.
He said the organization will watch to see how the ethics plan works in Surrey. “It’s an exciting and interesting thing, and we’ll be keeping an eye on it,” he said.
Details of the exact workings of the Surrey ethics commissioner remain to be determined, but a staff report said the officer could perform one or all of four functions: offering advice; investigating allegations of misconduct; training council on ethical conduct; and making recommendations to council on sanction or discipline.
The report says the annual cost of maintaining an ethics commissioners’ office could be upward of $200,000.
Councillor Jack Hundial, who put forward a motion on the package, said there was no particularly nefarious reason for backing the reforms, but Surrey, which is gaining about 1,000 residents a month, is a rapidly growing city that needs processes to manage such issues.
"When a citizen has an issue or they have a concern, there should be one place where they can go to get proper and fair treatment in a transparent way,” the former Mountie said in an interview on Tuesday.
“They should not have to rely on the city to investigate itself or elected officials to make those decisions of what may constitute as ethical behavior or not.”
In addition to voting to receive the staff report on ethics reform, Surrey councillors voted this week to find an independent expert to help develop a code of conduct, begin work on bylaws creating the code of conduct and ethics commissioners office, and develop a further report on changing the lobbyists registry.
Mr. Hundial said an ethics commissioner must have the ability to investigate and report back to council and the public.
He said the actual hiring of an ethics commissioner is likely about six to eight months out subject to further fine-tuning plans for the office, the commissioners’ role, and actually hiring someone for the job.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he is watching Surrey’s moves with interest as his city develops a lobbyists registry and provisions on conflicts of interest.
Mr. Stewart said such issues as money laundering have left citizens eager to have confidence in their municipal governments, and the ethics measures can bolster that faith.
Mr. Stewart said of an ethics commissioner: “It’s one way to go,” though he added he is interested in seeing exactly how Surrey proceeds. “That might be something we add into what we’re doing here.”