Does BC need a municipal ombudsperson?

“I’m not resigning,” said a defiant Mayor Lorraine Michetti, with a lax, slouched posture in her chair.

“And there’s nothing we can do to make you resign,” replied Coun. Ken Drover.

The exchange was part of a tense standoff between councillors and the mayor of Pouce Coupe in a February meeting. A firestorm brewed in the northeastern BC village’s council chambers after Michetti posted a racist reference to Indigenous pipeline opponents to Facebook.

The mayor had also compared gun owners to Holocaust victims, and she was facing pressure from fellow council members and local Indigenous leaders to resign.

She did not.

At around the same time, to the southwest of Pouce Coupe, Terrace’s first Indigenous councillor resigned.

It was February 2021, and Jessica McCallum-Miller had enough. The Gitxsan, Nisga’a, and Tsimshian city councillor posted on Facebook, saying she believed she wasn’t receiving the respect given to her colleagues.

“It is my personal belief that systemic and internalized racism as well as sexism had played a role in the inability of my colleagues to respect and understand my personal and diverse perspectives,” McCallum-Miller wrote.

A municipal ombudsperson

These two examples may seem worlds apart. But a BC group is drawing a connection between them and other incidents in BC local governance, from school boards to councils. And they want to see action taken.

More specifically, they’re pushing for the BC Ministry of Municipal Affairs to install an ombudsperson that would specifically oversee local governments.

So far, said one proponent, the government has heard their case, but there hasn’t been any movement on the issue.

The push began with New Westminster city councillors Nadine Nakagawa and Mary Trendadue, along with New West resident and co-founder of The Feminist Campaign School Trudi Goels.

But Trentadue said the group has gotten some traction from other local government officials throughout BC.

“There’s been so many situations of councillors and all kinds of elected officials resigning from the work because of feeling unsafe, experiencing racism, being isolated, being bullied, being silenced,” Trentadue said.

“There’s just so much of it going on.”

“Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean they’re disrespecting you. … And some people take that the wrong way. People are allowed to disagree.”

Photo: Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon

Incidents like those in Pouce Coupe and Terrace are often reported on in the media as isolated, one-off incidents. But Trentadue said she wants people to see the connection between them—and many more like them.

“This particular councillor resigned because of these reasons, and it’s told in one story. And then six months later, it happens again. But there’s no collective picture,” she said.

“It’s all over the place. It happens in the Lower Mainland. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had—I will say 99% of the time with other women councillors—where they’re being bullied and silenced and blocked and treated really, really poorly at the council table.”

Reversing progress made in 2018

In the 2018 municipal election, Trentadue described “a marginal increase of diversity” in local governments. Some of those who added to diverse representation on councils and school boards have left already.

Others, including in the Lower Mainland, have said publicly or privately that they won’t be seeking re-election next fall for the same reason, Trentadue said.

Trentadue said she had been considering the issue for some time, but it really kicked into gear with an incident here in the Lower Mainland.

In Port Moody—a couple years prior to the Michetti incident—Rob Vagramov was facing calls for his own resignation.

The young mayor of the Tri-Cities municipality similarly refused to resign his post, despite criminal charges of sexual assault against him, stemming from a 2015 date. Ultimately, by the end of 2019, the charges were stayed, with prosecutors saying the case had been privately resolved.

Vagramov did eventually bow to pressure. After he was charged in March 2019, he took a leave of absence. But after returning in September 2019, he faced pressure again from his fellow councillors, who pushed him to leave council again in October that year.

Less than a month later, the charge was stayed, and Vagramov returned to work.

Trentadue said she attended a Port Moody city council meeting and publicly called on Vagramov to resign but felt dismissed in the end.

“People have a pretty low regard for politicians generally. Things like that do not help build the public’s trust,” she said.

Is Burnaby supportive?

New Westminster city Coun. Mary Trentadue.

While the group has reached out to other city councils in BC, Trentadue said they haven’t reached out to any Burnaby councillors yet.

“Unfortunately, I feel like the Burnaby council is pretty old-school,” Trentadue said. “I don’t have a relationship with anybody there.”

Asked for his thoughts on adding a municipal ombudsperson, Hurley said he was a little caught off guard.

“I made some calls and nobody has heard anything about it,” he said of the push for a municipal ombudsperson, adding that he “wouldn’t be opposed to it.”

“But I would need to know terms of reference and details and those types of things. But overall, when you’re looking at it, … I’m not opposed to anything like that,” Hurley said.

The point of an ombudsperson, Trentadue said, would be for outside accountability in councils, which can be difficult to hold to account within local systems.

In the case of McCallum-Miller, she tried to convince the rest of the council to get cultural training regarding local Indigenous communities. But she was voted down on that.

Trentadue noted that in cases where one councillor feels bullied, they can’t publicly fight back. But an ombudsperson would be a neutral third party that could make a call about potential wrongdoing in those situations.

And that would add legitimacy to a councillor’s claims.

In cases where public censure doesn’t appear enough, if an ombudsperson is granted the authority, they may be able to remove an offending official from office.

How to hold officials responsible

Ultimately, it’s a question of ethics and accountability in local governments.

The province recently produced legislation that, if passed, would require councils to consider developing a code of conduct. But Trentadue said that would be toothless without someone like an ombudsperson to take a neutral view of things.

Other cities have proposed recall legislation—a law that would allow voters to vote a councillor out of office before their term ends.

Hurley said he agrees that there needs to be accountability for wrongdoing, but he’s also wary.

“You just have to be careful about how you go about it,” Hurley said.

“Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean they’re disrespecting you. … And some people take that the wrong way. People are allowed to disagree.”

But he said if the province came to the city to talk about something like an ombudsperson, Hurley said he would “certainly be willing” to have that conversation.

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