Two recently elected B.C. mayors who have been vocal about anti-corruption and transparency measures at the municipal level say it’s time for the provincial government to provide better tools for city halls to improve oversight and public confidence.
Surrey’s mayor-elect Brenda Locke is proposing several new and renewed measures — best categorized as so-called sunshine laws — in order to improve transparency and mitigate real or perceived abuse of power at Surrey City Hall.
But while Locke endeavours so, she is also calling on the provincial government for reforms to assist municipalities to be more transparent.
“I think 100 per cent that the Community Charter needs to be beefed up to include more of those measures. I think it has to come right in the Community Charter, in how we do business on a number of fronts,” said Locke, who says she looks forward to discussions with the Minister of Municipal Affairs.
Policies on whistleblower protection, lobbying, financial oversight and conflict of interest are largely left to municipalities to form a patchwork of bylaws provincewide. The provincial government oversees some measures such as freedom of information and financial disclosures — although even those are left to interpretation at the city hall level.
Such measures could lessen the risk of corruption in city halls, a matter of concern to the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada, which noted in its 2022 report that corruption (including by organized crime) leads to rising costs of goods and services, misallocation of public resources, weakened policymaking and damage to public confidence in government and law enforcement.
Surrey needs more 'sunshine laws,' says Locke
Locke first intends to perform an audit of development approvals over the course of the last four-year term, believing there may have been undeclared conflicts and many approvals not recommended by staff.
“There's been some changes to zoning, that has been extraordinary,” said Locke, who will review the last council meeting before the election wherein 50 projects, including about 5,000 pages, were passed by the former council.
After hearing broad allegations of corruption from some members of the public, Locke says, “the public trust needs to be rebuilt on some of the land use applications that have come before [council].”
Locke says with council support she will reverse a $10 freedom of information request charge implemented under the prior council. She will also re-instate the ethics commissioner, whose work was scrapped months leading up to the Oct. 15 election.
Locke says the commissioner’s role was “weaponized” by councillors and wants to see a more educational role in place for it. That said, Locke is proposing a whistleblower bylaw and a more informative lobbyist registry that can assist the commissioner.
“Our lobbyist registry right now is just names, no paper. It’s never adhered to; there’s never a reference to it,” said Locke.
As it stands Surrey’s registry is a simple list of people (such as developers, contractors and business representatives) who are engaged in meetings with staff and council members; however, there is no calendar with scheduled appointments.
“There should be more emphasis on utilizing it and understanding when and when you cannot talk with developers,” said Locke.
All said, Locke thinks the province can implement many measures for all municipalities. For instance, there could be a municipal lobbyist registry as like the one for the province, and whistleblower protections could be mandated.
Locke also wants provincial laws for council nominees to submit a criminal record check and be disqualified if they have a record. She’s also calling for recall legislation for municipal council members.
Beneficial ownership, foreign lobbying registries can help city halls: Brad West
On Locke’s side on such matters, generally, is Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West.
“I’d like to see municipalities derive their authorities and their power from the provincial government. And ultimately, I think it's the provincial government that has the responsibility to ensure that these checks and balances are in place and that people can have confidence,” said West.
The acclaimed mayor raises the need for a beneficial ownership registry for corporations that municipalities can reference during rezoning applications or contract negotiations.
The province has established a beneficial ownership registry for land, which should be fully implemented in November.
“When it comes to areas that are susceptible to concerns around corruption or undue influence, rezoning is probably the one that would be of the biggest concern as it relates to local government,” said West.
Another area West wants senior governments to assist municipalities with is foreign influence; worried about covert influence schemes and repression tactics against Port Coquitlam residents by the People’s Republic of China, West is eager to have city halls be able to access a federal foreign agents registry, which does not yet exist in Canada but could complement a municipal lobbyist registry.
Financial disclosures a patchwork
West says he’s also in favour of better disclosure of financial interests among elected officials — a matter that’s impacted him when his work (prior to being elected in October 2018) with the United Steelworkers was raised by the Georgia Straight publication, which suggested a perceived conflict of interest between West’s statements about PRC influence and work at a union that's in competition with the PRC. West said he welcomed the scrutiny (and is on unpaid leave from the job since 2019).
Still, financial disclosures are not only limited in scope, they are inconsistently accessible to the public across the province, with some municipalities posting them online and others posting redacted versions, if at all.
For the election, Port Coquitlam did not post nominee financial disclosures online — a matter West said he’d like to reverse, if it wasn't an oversight. Surrey, meanwhile, redacted investment properties citing unspecified privacy reasons under the Freedom of Information Act. Vancouver posted its disclosures and redacted personal residences online, although under all circumstances unredacted versions of these public documents should be available for in-person inspections.
Anti-corruption measures at UBCM
Proposed provincial measures to improve transparency at city halls have largely been met with resistance in recent years.
The Union of BC Municipalities shows past resolutions online, including more robust financial disclosures for nominees and elected council members.
In 2019, one unendorsed measure from Richmond called for including spousal assets and liabilities and disclosure of family member properties. In 2018, Vancouver’s endorsed resolution called for disclosure of funding sources for lobbying and consulting. The provincial government responded by pointing out existing conflict of interest laws, which includes both “direct and indirect pecuniary interests” of the official.
In 2020, municipalities endorsed criminal record checks but it was considered by the province as a “substantive policy change requiring much deeper consideration of implication.”
In 2019, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said it would consider an endorsement from cities to establish a “lobbying regulation system for municipal government,” similar to the provincial mechanism under the BC Lobbyists Registration Act.
The ministry was less receptive to a non-partisan “Municipal Conflict of Interest Commissioner” or expansion of the scope of powers of the BC Conflict of Interest Commissioner, as endorsed in 2019.
“Local governments can voluntarily choose to establish their own policies to further manage responsible conduct issues,” stated the ministry in response, noting it would be a daunting task with over 180 local governments and in excess of 1,500 local government elected officials.
Ironically, one of the times the province has acted on a resolution is to disband an entity that was to provide more transparency: In 2015, municipalities called for the dissolution of the Auditor General for Local Government office following concerns it wasn’t meeting its mandate. In 2021, the province closed it with no new measures in place to provide better provincewide oversight of municipal financial records.
“A range of tools, both voluntary and legislative, continue to be available to help local governments ensure good governance and accountability in their communities. In addition to completing annual audited financial statements, local governments must meet various legislated requirements, including producing a five-year financial plan,” stated the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.
Minister of Municipal Affairs Nathan Cullen said he was unavailable to comment but looks forward to meeting with newly elected local officials.
With files from Bob Mackin/Business in Vancouver