Vancouver mayor’s role as head of police board tested in dispute over VPD budget cuts

Kennedy Stewart’s predecessors Sam Sullivan and Gregor Robertson complained of conflict in dual role

Mayor Kennedy Stewart also doubles as chairperson of the Vancouver Police Board. File photo Dan Toulgoet

Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s role as chairperson of the Vancouver Police Board is being tested as the police department faces a city council-ordered one per cent cut to its $315 million operating budget.

Stewart became chairperson of the police board when he was elected mayor in October 2018, an automatic appointment under the Police Act for municipalities not served by the RCMP.

Those dual roles have now placed him at the centre of a public dispute that surfaced in mid-May after council passed a motion in an in-camera meeting to reduce the police department’s budget by one per cent.

“I do have the two weird hats,” Stewart acknowledged by telephone Monday. “I can’t talk to the police board about the council in-camera meetings, and I can’t talk to council about the board in-camera meetings, even though I know what both sides are saying.”

Stewart voted on the council motion in the May 13 in-camera meeting but municipal laws prevent him or councillors from discussing their vote.

Councillors Melissa De Genova and Sarah Kirby-Yung were not present for the vote because of the potential conflict with them being married to Vancouver police officers.

The mayor said he couldn’t say who drafted the motion but noted he wasn’t aware such a motion was being tabled when he joined the in-camera meeting.

The move by council — and the public backlash that ensued from Police Chief Adam Palmer — shined a light on the longstanding practice of Vancouver mayors leading the police board.

Stewart’s predecessors Gregor Robertson and Sam Sullivan both complained of the inherent conflict of having a politician on a board whose job involves approving (or cutting) budgets for the police department.

“There is a definite conflict that happens with the mayor trying to represent the broader budget and also representing the police,” Sullivan told the Vancouver Courier in 2008. “Certainly, I feel the tensions regularly.”

In fact, both Robertson and Sullivan requested the Police Act be revised to prevent an elected mayor from becoming chairperson of the police board.

The relationship was also highlighted in the Stanley Cup Riot Review in August 2011. The authors said Robertson told them the requirement to become chairperson of the police board “is not good governance.”

“The mayor’s responsibilities could be better exercised if he or she was dealing with the police board, and not directly with the chief as chair of the police board,” the review concluded.

Stewart is aware of his predecessors’ concerns but said he is not prepared to request the provincial government replace his position with a non-politician.

He cited the benefit of having a council representative working closely with the board and department, particularly since the police budget represents 21 per cent of the city’s operating budget.

In the current case of council’s one per cent budget cut order, the mayor pointed out he only votes in the event of a tie at the police board.

He also said board member Barj Dhahan, who was appointed by the provincial government, is now the board’s lead on the budget cut file.

“It would be strange if I was writing letters back and forth to myself,” said Stewart, also noting he doesn’t participate in finance committee discussions to decide on the “nitty gritty” of policy and recommendations.

Added Stewart: “I feel comfortable doing both jobs and, so far, I’ve been able to manage it, although it can be challenging at times.”

The mayor said discussions continue with the police board, department and city about council’s order to cut one per cent from its operating budget.

Though he couldn’t say how he voted in the May 13 in-camera meeting, Glacier Media asked whether he thought the police department should cut costs, as other departments have agreed to.

He answered by saying he has two advisers in city manager Sadhu Johnston, who has requested cuts across all departments, and Palmer, who has argued against cuts during a pandemic.

“With that hat on [as mayor], I would say yeah, I think all departments should do their part,” Stewart said. “On the other side, the chief says this will affect operations. I also believe him when he says that. Both the top advisers on these are both correct, but we have to find a middle ground, and I think that’s where this discussion will get to.”

Palmer was vocal in his disappointment in council’s move, saying in a written statement May 14 that he was surprised a cut was necessary during a pandemic.

“I’m concerned about the lack of transparency in this process,” he said. “Decisions that have the potential to have a fundamental impact on public safety should not be made in private.”

The mayor said he continues to have a strong relationship with Palmer, who was not available for an interview when Glacier Media made a request Monday.

Palmer spoke to the Courier in December 2018 about having Stewart lead the police board and cited no issues with the mayor’s dual roles.

“If you look at the history of the department — and I can’t speak for all the departments in the province — but in Vancouver, it’s actually worked very well,” the chief said. “We haven’t had issues with it, other than the academic debate.”

Council’s in-camera motion wasn’t prescriptive in what should be cut from the police budget, although it is expected the board would not provide pay increases this year to the three unions representing VPD employees.

In his statement, Palmer noted 97 per cent of the VPD’s budget is for salaries, saying that “any reduction [to the budget] equals a reduction in police response.” 

In December, council approved the hiring of 25 new police officers and 10 new staff. It’s unclear whether all or any of those new hires will be affected by a one per cent cut.

Stewart didn’t provide a timeline when the public will learn the conclusion of the talks between the police and the city.

“The great thing is we’re still in dialogue,” the mayor said. “Nobody’s saying no to anybody else, nobody’s stopping discussing, there’s no court cases being launched, or anything like that. So we’re still in a place to move forward and all try to adjust to this tough situation.”