Councillors who meet privately on city business likely break the law: Some questions

city-council-2014-large

The current Vancouver City Council, from 2014 to 2018. Councillors Deal, Affleck, Ball, Louie, Meggs, Mayor Robertson, then Stevenson, Reimer, Jang, Carr, and De Genova. Seven from Vision Vancouver, three from the NPA, and one Green. Total 11 persons.

(Update: City Council has a heavy agenda on June 28 and 29. Will Vision Vancouver members of Council be discussing and coordinating how they vote in advance. If so, it would be illegal. )

In September, 2015, the Vancouver Sun carried an article by reporter Jeff Lee, revealing the fact the City Councillors are likely breaking the law if they privately meet or even exchange e-mails, text messages or phone calls serially or sequentially regarding upcoming Council decisions.

The basic principle here is that public business must be conducted in public.

We are looking forward to an outcome of the review of this topic that was supposed to happen.

We are investigating and will report back with news. We would like to see explicit text outlining the exact legislation and its implications in practice, from a provincial or municipal authority.

  • If legislation has been violated in past years, how far back does the “statute of limitations” go? (In the United States, where similar legislation is more strictly enforced, fines can be up to $1,000 per violation.)
  • Which authority is responsible for oversight, monitoring, and enforcement?
  • What steps are required, and by whom, to ensure that the legislation is followed to the letter and the spirit of the law?
  • Does provincial legislation need to be tightened up, with clearer rules, enforcement, and fines, and could this be a 2017 provincial election issue? Could the City of Vancouver, with its own Vancouver Charter, adopts its own rules even before the provincial government institutes changes?
  • Bottom line: Who is looking after the public interest?

The article goes on to quote Councillor Raymond Louie saying he will seek a clarification from the City’s legal department on what is permitted and what it not. We are not aware of any further report or discussion at a City Council meeting.

Currently the risk of most egregious violations of this legislation could be with the Vision Vancouver civic party, which has seven of eleven seats on City Council, and therefore an absolute majority when it comes to voting. If their internal caucus meetings or other forms of communications are determining how the individual elected officials will vote in Council meetings or Public Hearings, it is probably illegal and not in the public interest. Stay tuned.

Citizens and companies are expected to follow legislation and bylaws, and elected officials have an even higher responsibility to do so, to set an example for society.

Below are excerpts of the article. Please visit the Vancouver Sun for the whole text.

Councillors who meet privately likely breaking the rules, says lawyer
(by Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun, 22-Sept-2015)

Vision Councillor Raymond Louie was surprised to learn Wednesday that he and his fellow councillors have likely been breaking the law by meeting in private ahead of regular council sessions

The Vision Vancouver majority on council may be violating the province’s open meeting laws by conducting caucus meetings before their regularly-scheduled council sessions, a veteran lawyer familiar with municipal law said Tuesday.

Raymond Young said councillors cannot meet together when they have a quorum without holding those meetings in public or under rules that limit in camera closed-door meetings to a narrow list of legitimately confidential issues.

In Vancouver, a quorum of the 11-member council is six. Vision Vancouver has seven members, including Mayor Gregor Robertson. Vision councillors regularly caucus in the mayor’s office before council meetings. In council, their votes are virtually unanimous and they tightly whip their caucus around issues, even giving portfolios to councillors.

If they are caucusing, they have a problem. That’s a council meeting,” said Young, one of B.C.’s senior lawyers on municipal law. He was a founding partner of Young Anderson, one of B.C.’s best-known firms specializing in municipal law.

Young made the comments following a packed session at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Vancouver where he reviewed B.C.’s municipal rules on open meetings.

He told the audience many politicians don’t understand the law and the impact when it is broken. In the United States, where such legislation is more rigorously enforced, councillors can be fined for holding “illegal” meetings. In Washington, the fine can be $100; in Wisconsin $360; in Ohio and Arizona, $500, and in Oregon up to $1,000 per violation. They also can’t take the oath of office without a short course on the rules around open meetings.

… When asked if council caucuses before council meetings could violate the rules if a party holds power and forms quorum, he said yes.

“If they are caucusing before each council meeting and they’ve got the agenda out two or three days before the council meeting and they know what the issues will be … all of that is a council meeting, and it is an unlawful meeting,” he said, especially if they decide who will make a motion, second a motion and lead in discussion….

 

 

 

… Young said that even when councillors email, text or call each other serially, or sequentially, they could be considered to be having a meeting. Even informal meetings such as a breakfast at a house can become an illegal meeting if the conversation turns from the weather to a city issue, he said….

Full article:
http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Councillors+meet+privately+likely+breaking+rules+says+lawyer/11385689/story.html

jefflee@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/sunciviclee

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