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Municipal Politics

Ken Sim Tried to Stop a Councillor From Talking. Will It Happen Again?

A complaint filed by the Vancouver mayor against Christine Boyle targeted her public comments about a living wage.

Jen St. Denis 6 Oct 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

A Vancouver city councillor says she spent $7,000 to defend herself against a code of conduct complaint that targeted her for speaking in support of city workers getting a living wage — and she fears the same tactic could be used to try to silence her again.

The city’s integrity commissioner, Lisa Southern, cleared Coun. Christine Boyle of any wrongdoing in a decision on the complaint from Mayor Ken Sim.

“The whole experience was very chilling,” said Boyle, who is one of three opposition councillors on a council where the mayor and seven other councillors are members of the right-leaning ABC party.

“And it made me quite nervous about commenting on other issues and decisions that have been made in camera and released publicly, like the disbanding of the Vancouver Economic Commission, which I disagree with.”

Boyle said she got advice from the city’s legal department before deciding to speak publicly about a council vote that had happened in camera in January. In camera meetings are not open to the public to allow councillors to discuss sensitive issues like financial or labour negotiations.

After the in camera meeting, Boyle asked for advice from the integrity commissioner’s office and from the city’s legal department about whether she could talk publicly about how she voted. Based on that advice, she waited until the city released a press release about the results of the living wage vote on March 2 to put out her own statement.

She also gave several interviews to news media in early March, talking about her “no” vote and why she opposed the move. The City of Vancouver was one of the first B.C. cities to commit to pay workers a wage that allows staff to afford to live in the city, and Boyle said she’s always been a passionate supporter of the policy.

Sim filed a code of conduct complaint against Boyle on March 7, alleging Boyle had improperly disclosed confidential information by talking about how she voted.

When the city’s integrity commissioner asked whether Sim would be open to resolving the complaint with an informal resolution process, he refused, leading to a months-long investigation.

While the investigation was ongoing, Boyle was prevented from speaking about it to anyone.

She did continue to speak about the living wage decision, including at a labour event on May 1. At that event, Boyle rallied the crowd with a particularly fiery speech.

“The living wage is good for people,” Boyle said. “It means worrying less about just effing surviving. Not going to work sick; not hustling between multiple jobs. It means dignity and rest and a chance to dream about the future.

“Since the decision to kill the living wage, I want to tell you, I have been so angry. Vancouver ending its living wage policy sends a terrible message. It says some working people don’t belong here. And I absolutely, fiercely disagree.”

In her decision, Southern wrote that a communication plan given to the mayor and councillors stated that elected officials were “not to comment on the decision on the Living Wage Program until the decision was made public on March 2, 2023.” But another memo on in camera meetings contradicted that plan, saying “even where a report or information has been released from in camera (i.e. made public) the details of the discussion, which councillors were for or against the matter, and the actual vote, are not released.”

But Southern found that the advice Boyle had been given by city lawyers and another section of the in camera memo both supported Boyle’s interpretation that she could speak about her own vote.

This is not the first time the ABC-dominated council has been criticized for appearing to shut down dissent. In March, ABC Coun. Peter Meiszner said organizations that receive grants from the city should be “respectful.” As an example of speech he had a problem with, Meiszner pointed to comments critical of Sim that were made in the news media by a member of a Chinatown non-profit.

Other non-profit leaders said they found that stance “undemocratic.”

In a followup report submitted to council in July, city staff told councillors that while harassment, threats and discrimination are unacceptable, speech that is simply critical of elected officials shouldn’t be restricted.

Boyle said she’s grateful the City of Vancouver has an integrity commissioner who can weigh in in an impartial way when complaints are brought forward. In other municipalities, complaints are decided by other councillors, which can lead to the complaint process being politicized.

Boyle said she now expects the ABC-dominated council to propose a change to the rules around disclosing what happens during in camera meetings.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if council now tried to change the rules, if they don’t like where this integrity commissioner report landed,” she said.

The Tyee asked Sim why it was important to file the complaint and how he feels about the decision.

In response, his communications director, Harrison Fleming, said the integrity commissioner’s report shows the city “has been unclear and inconsistent regarding individual in-camera council voting disclosures. The Office of the Mayor looks forward to working with council to develop a clear policy around in-camera meetings to ensure clarity.”

With files from Zak Vescera.  [Tyee]

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