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B.C. ombudsperson 'deeply concerned' by Surrey's 6-month ban on ethics investigations


B.C.'s ombudsperson said he's disappointed in several recent bylaw amendments approved by Surrey's city council Monday night, including one that put a six-month ban on ethics investigations ahead of the municipal election.

Jay Chalke issued a letter to city council before the vote, expressing “concern” and urging council to reconsider.

"Surrey demonstrated commendable leadership by being the first municipality in British Columbia to appoint an ethics commissioner," Chalke wrote.

"However, council's recent decision to so broadly restrict complaints in an election year subverts (the Surrey Ethics Commissioner Office)'s purpose and has weakened the credibility of the overall effort."

But despite Chalke’s plea, council voted 5-2 to adopt the amendments, meaning no new ethics complaints will be received and processed until after the October municipal election.

“I'm very concerned with the precedent that this sets,” Chalke told CTV News Tuesday. "When one looks at that balance of election integrity and accountability, an appropriate balance can be struck and in my view, the balance that was struck by Surrey City Council is not that appropriate one that I'm looking for."

Chalke said it's not unreasonable to put a moratorium on new investigations before an election, but was concerned that the ethics commissioner’s recommended period of 46 days was increased to about six months.

By comparison, Vancouver freezes its ethics investigations 36 days from an election, and Edmonton and Toronto pause their investigations three months prior to an election.

"Council's failure to give any notice of this immediate blanket moratorium on new complaints impacted every constituent who may have otherwise been planning on bringing an ethics complaint forward," Chalke said in the letter, adding that he's worried the bylaw amendment wasn't adequately debated in an open council meeting.

"The principles of transparency, accountability and integrity should always be promoted, not just in non-election years."

The moratorium is also retroactive to April 12, a day after the amendments passed third reading, which puzzles Coun. Brenda Locke.

“Normally when you change a bylaw, you say it is at the time of adoption of the bylaw. You don't do it in the rearview mirror. And so making this in retrospect is quite unheard of,” Locke told CTV News.

She suspects this is because the last time council tried to stop ethics investigations, the office received an avalanche of new complaints,

“They wanted to keep that timeline short because they don't want to trigger any additional complaints. So this begs the question, what are they trying to hide? I don’t know,” she said.

The bylaw was initially supposed to be discussed at a council meeting in January, but Mayor Doug McCallum recommended removing the item from the agenda just hours before the meeting was scheduled to start.

"The work of the ethics commissioner is valuable and the misinformation circulating about the bylaw is unfortunate," McCallum wrote in a statement ahead of that January council meeting.

"The goal is to strengthen the bylaw to ensure the Office of the Ethics Commissioner is not used for partisan purposes during the election period."

The motion was then reintroduced and voted on in April. It passed with a 5-3 vote.

Coun. Linda Annis, who is part of Surrey First, agreed with Chalke's letter.

"The changes supported by Doug McCallum give politicians at Surrey City Hall a holiday from ethics investigations until after the municipal election," Annis said in a statement.

"That alone should raise questions and concerns among Surrey voters. Ethics are supposed to be something we have and commit to every single day, which means any violation should always be subject to investigation, with absolutely no get-out-of-jail free card six months before an election."

Chalke said he will be bringing the concerns forward to B.C.’s Minister of Municipal Affairs. Top Stories

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