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Rob Ford fiasco a warning to B.C. on four-year civic council terms

Few mechanisms in place to eject elected municipal officials who break the law or admit to bad behaviour

Crack cocaine use, drunken stupors and alleged criminal associations. This is how Toronto is becoming known around the world, thanks to the ongoing saga that is Mayor Rob Ford.

And as fruitless calls for his resignation grow louder, and the mayor digs his heels in deeper, a former University of Victoria political scientist says British Columbia should use this unfolding story as a political learning opportunity.

Dennis Pilon, now an associate professor in the political science department at Toronto's York University, warns that issues like this – although rare – should deter B.C.'s provincial government from increasing terms for municipal politicians from three years to four.

Despite Ford's admissions and despite ongoing criminal investigations, Torontonians and that city's councillors have no power to force Ford to step down. And it would be the same situation in B.C.

Under B.C.'s Community Charter, municipally elected officials can only be disqualified from office as a result of unethical council-related conduct – such as a conflict of interest or an unauthorized used of municipal funds, or for missing four consecutive meetings.

If a mayor or councillor in B.C. admitted to unsavoury activities such as buying and consuming illegal drugs, and refused to step down, residents would have to wait until the next municipal election to oust that elected official.

"Government at a municipal level is very rigid. To be rigid for four years, I think, is more dangerous," Pilon said. "It's fundamentally undemocratic to remove the public's ability to comment on the politicians. … Extending the length of council terms looks really dumb now. The argument of why municipal terms should be shorter is precisely to give the public relief from a misbehaving councillor or mayor."

In September, 60 per cent of voting delegates at the Union of B.C. Municipalities conference endorsed having local elections every four years like most other provinces in Canada. That resolution is to go to the provincial government, which has the authority to make that change.

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard says the Rob Ford exception shouldn't make the rule. Regardless of term length, an elected official can act badly in their first year or their last year. He says any politician who admits to the type of conduct that Ford has should resign.

"We are elected to be lawmakers, not lawbreakers – period. He must step down if he has any respect for the position of trust he holds," Leonard said. "It is not about individuals in the end – it is about the elected positions we are privileged to occupy temporarily. We must hold them with humility. … Once you bring disrepute to an elected office, you must resign."

While citizens have no powers to remove a civic politician, B.C. is the only province in Canada that has recall legislation that gives residents an opportunity to dethrone a sitting MLA. All 24 attempts at recall in B.C. since 1997 have failed.

Leonard says it's tough to say what lessons will be learned when all is said and done in Toronto with Ford.

"I don't think any rules can be established based on this Ford fiasco because it's such an extreme case. It's beyond making public policy," he said. "We've gone beyond indignant and outraged to just speechless."

Pilon calls the Ford situation "a boon for drawing out political lessons." What lessons, though, remains to be seen.

"It appears that politicians are able to push past some of the traditional third rails of politics – drugs, bad personal behaviour, marital infidelity. These were all things that would kill a career once upon a time. It appears politicians can now get away with it," he said. "It's not necessarily stopping them from getting re-elected."


B.C. Community Charter

Under Sec. 110 of the Community Charter: "An elected official may be disqualified from office in a number of circumstances. Disqualification may include:  failing to take the required oath, an absence from council meetings for 60 days or missing 4 consecutive council meetings…, a conflict of interest…, an unauthorized use of money, or a disqualification as a result of not meeting qualifications to hold office."

If an elected official is charged with a criminal offence, the only relevant portion of the Community Charter to apply for potential disqualification would be if they miss a series of council meetings.

Once the potential for disqualification is met, the municipal government or 10 electors can then apply to the Supreme Court for an order to address the issue.


A brief history of politicians in B.C. running afoul of the law

• In May 2008, Highlands councillor Ken Brotherston was charged with murder. As a result, he asked for an indefinite leave of absence from council, and did not seek office in that year's election. In 2010 he was found not guilty of the murder.

• In April 2007, Port Coquitlam Mayor Scott Young was charged with assault and break and enter, among other charges, for an attack on a former girlfriend and her friend. Despite his council twice asking him to resign, Young stayed on as mayor through the legal proceedings. He ultimately pleaded guilty to assault and breaching an order, and received a conditional sentence, which included a curfew. He successfully appealed to have his curfew extended on Monday nights to allow him to attend council meetings. He wasn't voted back into office in 2008.

• In June 2004, former North Saanich councillor Bill Bird, a realtor, admitted to a non-pecuniary conflict of interest related to a rezoning application of a property owned by a business partner. Bird did not step down. In May 2005, a Supreme Court judge found the conflict of interest was even deeper-seeded than what Bird admitted, and immediately disqualified Bird from holding office until the next election. He did not seek re-election.

• In January 2003, then-premier Gordon Campbell was arrested in Hawaii for drunk driving. Campbell didn't step down. He tearfully apologized to British Columbians, swore off alcohol and was subsequently re-elected twice.