The Province’s latest action came after a statement posted on the city’s website (PDF Update: The city removed the statement from it’s website after this story was published) said the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development “did not find fault” with the city’s committees process.
The implication was that the Ministry supported plans by the council majority led by Councillor Bill Bestwick to cement their control over all city functions by replacing 11 committees with 6 new ones, while dissolving a separate environmental committee.
However, in a statement issued to News Nanaimo late yesterday, a Ministry spokesman contradicted the city’s claims saying “there was no ruling on the legalities of the City of Nanaimo committee structure.”
The new committees were plunged into legal uncertainty when Mayor Bill McKay voted against them. Prominent committee members have also strongly criticized the new structure.
The Ministry’s latest statement comes just six days after News Nanaimo published an unusual public statement from a senior provincial official correcting similar statements by the city’s top official, Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Tracy Samra.
That article revealed that Inspector of Municipalities Tara Faganello had written to correct the city’s CAO on statements she made implying that the ministry and the inspector had given the committees their blessing. Ms. Samra has not publicly addressed the letter.
Questions to all council members about how they and Ms. Samra could make the same error twice, and why they did not seek Ministry input on the council statement prior to publication were not answered by publication time.
The latest gaffe leaves at least three councillors with red faces, since they earlier indicated they had no problem with the statement and believed it was accurate.
In a statement shared on Facebook, councillor Bestwick said he saw “no reason not to accept the information.” Meanwhile, Councillors Wendy Pratt and Ian Thorpe both said they believed the information was accurate and had “no objection” to it being posted.
Mayor was away, did not approve statement
And in a further twist, Mayor McKay told News Nanaimo he was out of town and never approved the statement published on the city’s website on Thursday, which claimed to come from “Mayor & Council.” He was on the West coast with spotty email access, he said.
That put the process council used to approve the statement in the spotlight and raised questions about why the statement purported to come from “Mayor & Council” if the Mayor had not expressly approved it.
News Nanaimo asked all council members if they thought it was misleading to the public to sign the statement “Mayor & Council” and to include statements that appeared to speak on the mayor’s behalf when he had not explicitly approved the statement. No one answered.
City officials have often used the phrase “Mayor and Council” to mean council as a whole. However, it is not legally correct terminology since the Community Charter, a Provincial law that gives councils authority, only recognizes “councils” as governing bodies. The mayor and councillors are the members of council.
“No policy on motions or signoff”
According to an email from Ms. Samra posted on Facebook by local businessman Don Bonner, a statement was “drafted” by the city’s outside lawyers and then circulated to council members.
One councillor recommended a press release and “no council members objected” so it was published on the city website, said Ms. Samra, adding that the city did not have a policy requiring a council motion or sign off for council statements.
Questions about how city staff knew that all council members actually received and opened the email about the press release prior to it being posted were not answered by publication time.
However, sources said there were many emails — one called it “a blitz” while another called it a “bombardment” — but none referred to councillors having to express objections if they opposed releasing a statement.
A senior consultant in municipal governance said the city’s process was improper.
“You cannot have lawyers, consultants and communications people speaking for the council without their approval — or even their knowledge — with no one at all accountable because there is no policy against it,” he said.
Skirting the issue
Meanwhile, Ms. Samra and the Bestwick-led majority continue to skirt the central question in the committees controversy.
This week’s statement addressed much that has never been in question, but said nothing about how the city’s committees are legal if they are standing committees but don’t have the mayor’s support.
The Community Charter gives mayors sole authority to create standing committees, which are committees with an ongoing function. A majority of council can only create a select committee “to consider or inquire into any matter and to report its findings and opinion to the council” after which it ceases to exist, according to municipal law experts.
While Ms. Samra has repeatedly said the city is doing nothing different than was done with past committees, she conveniently ignores the fact that past committees were empowered by the mayor’s vote in favor.
On Monday night, Ms. Samra told a council meeting that the city was moving ahead with its controversial plans. This may leave the committees vulnerable to review by a judge as senior lawyers believe the law is weighed heavily against Ms. Samra and Councillor Bestwick’s majority group.
Meanwhile, several leading committee members are unhappy with the new committee structure. The scrapping of the environmental committee has drawn the greatest criticism as higher levels of government are making climate action a priority.