Civil liberties group objects to code of conduct for Victoria council

Debate at Victoria council table could be stifled, opponents say

A proposed code of conduct for council at the City of Victoria is too broad and nearly impossible to observe, says B.C.’s civil liberties watchdog.

In a letter to council, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said it sees “significant problems” with the code that could stifle debate at council, standing committees and public advisory committees.

“There is concern this will chill democratic process and the free speech obligations of council,” said association policy director Micheal Vonn.

One problematic section, she said, restricts councillors from casting “aspersions” if they disagree with a council process. Another lists sanction options like censure and the denial of public resources if councillors fail to respect colleagues.

“We appreciate getting the wording right is very tricky, but when (councillors) have obligations – that are backed by punishment – to do things like not offend anyone’s self-esteem, you’re in an arena in which, simply put, is too vague,” Vonn said.

Mayor Dean Fortin, who proposed the code, said he’s merely following through with recommendations from both a 2009 governance review and a 2011 consultant’s report, despite the fact that individual council behaviour is already governed by both the Local Government Act and community charter.

“Respectfully, I disagree (with BCCLA) in that there’s nothing about the code that restricts democratic debate,” he said. “It merely asks you to turn your mind to how you say it. I don’t think insults, intimidation and bullying further democratic debate.”

Fortin was unable to reference specific instances of intimidation, but said the code is a proactive measure to increase transparency and clarity at the council table.

A majority of councillors last week supported moving forward with developing a code of conduct policy, with Geoff Young, Ben Isitt and Lisa Helps opposed.

“There are a lot of strong personalities around the (council) table, and we were all elected because we have strong views and personalities,” Helps said. “My fear is we’re going to spend a whole bunch of time working on this policy … If anyone disagrees with the process or a decision, we should be able to speak freely about it. It’s our responsibility to do so.”

Fortin said the code is subject to council debate as part of the city’s larger governance review. Vancouver and other B.C. municipalities – none in the Capital Region – have also implemented conduct guidelines for councillors.

“In any environment, there are always two sides: one is task and the other is process,” he said. “Being able to deal with the issues of process allows you to accomplish your tasks more quickly and more efficiently. You can’t ignore one without the other.”

dpalmer@vicnews.com