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Municipal Politics

Sim Wins Second Conduct Complaint Against Councillor

Christine Boyle apologized for criticism of staffer but fears chilling effect of complaints.

Jen St. Denis 11 Oct 2023The Tyee

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

Vancouver’s mayor has filed two official complaints against an opposition city councillor in the past six months, both targeting comments made by Christine Boyle.

Ken Sim swept into power in 2022 along with seven other councillors with the right-leaning ABC party, winning a majority on council. Boyle is the sole councillor with OneCity, a left-leaning party, while the remaining two seats were won by Green councillors Pete Fry and Adriane Carr.

The city’s integrity commissioner dismissed Sim’s first complaint but upheld his second accusation against Boyle.

Sim filed the first code of conduct complaint against Boyle in March, after she gave several media interviews about her opposing vote to an in-camera motion to cancel the city’s living wage program for city employees. While in-camera meetings are not open to the public, Boyle spoke out after the results of the vote had been made public, and after getting legal advice from the city that it would be OK for her to speak about how she voted.

Vancouver’s integrity commissioner, Lisa Southern, investigated for six months before deciding in Boyle’s favour in a decision released on Sept. 29.

Sim filed his second complaint against Boyle on Aug. 25. This time Sim’s complaint focused on comments made by Boyle and her party, OneCity, on the hiring of Harrison Fleming as communications director for the mayor’s office.

Fleming had previously worked for former Alberta premier Jason Kenney and then with the Ontario Conservatives, and the language OneCity used to describe him was spicy.

“Before he worked for Doug Ford, Mr. Fleming was one of Jason Kenney’s top Internet bullies, harassing opponents of the government as Kenney worked to deny climate change and to enable and empower anti-maskers and COVID deniers,” the party wrote to supporters.

Boyle had shared a OneCity social media post that said: “Ken Sim’s newest hire left a government that doesn’t believe climate change is real to work for a government that is in the middle of an $8-billion corruption scandal and is being investigated by the RCMP. Now, he’s at Vancouver City Hall.”

The $8-billion corruption scandal refers to the Greenbelt scandal. According to Ontario’s auditor general, the Conservative government favoured a small number of developers when government took land out of protected environmental areas and made it available for sale. There is no indication Fleming, who worked at Ontario’s Ministry of Education before coming to Vancouver, was involved in the Greenbelt affair.

In her decision, Southern wrote that the language went too far in its negative portrayal of a city staffer. She especially took issue with the characterization of Fleming as “one of Jason Kenney’s top internet bullies, harassing opponents of the government,” calling the comment “disrespectful and arguably defamatory.”

Southern wrote that while the code of conduct “allows significant latitude in how councillors communicate, it prohibits councillors from engaging in communications that are disrespectful or that ‘discriminate, harass, or defame any person.’”

Southern said that OneCity’s comments were problematic because they were personally directed at Fleming and “stated as fact versus opinion.”

The complaint was resolved when Boyle published a public apology, which acknowledged that “ad hominem” attacks — targeting the person, not their ideas — can be a low blow. Sim made a further request: that the apology be pinned to Boyle’s page on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

Boyle declined to speak to The Tyee about the second complaint, but in a previous interview she told The Tyee she had paid $7,000 out of her own pocket in legal fees to defend herself against the first complaint. She said she was concerned her political opponents could use the same tactic to try to silence her again in the future.

Fleming’s previous tactics as communications staffer from 2020 to 2022 in Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party are well-documented. As Charles Rusnell, an investigative journalist from Alberta, wrote in a previous Tyee story, Fleming “used Kenney’s personal Unite Alberta Twitter account as an amplified pulpit to attack the opposition, the federal Liberals, academics, union leaders, journalists, private citizens, even UCP MLAs who dared challenge Kenney’s leadership of his foreshortened reign.”

Some of those tweets targeted NDP leader former Alberta premier Rachel Notley in a sexist way, calling her “unhinged,” “sad and angry” and calling her a liar over and over again.

The account also turned its ire on Rusnell, calling him “unhinged,” “confused,” and the wearer of “a tinfoil hat.”

In a longer story exploring the hyper-partisan world of Kenney-era politics, Rusnell told the story of Thelma, a woman who decided to speak up about the effect government cuts would have on her two children, who both have autism. During an NDP press conference, Thelma told Rusnell, two UCP government staffers — Colin Aitchison and Harrison Fleming — “were in the front row ‘mocking me and making faces at me.’”

The Tyee contacted Fleming to confirm he wrote the tweets and ask for any context on the incidents Rusnell had reported. The Tyee also asked Fleming if he would like to comment on the code of conduct complaint against Boyle. In multiple email messages, Fleming declined to comment or respond to questions.

“I am proud of my record of public service, and look forward to continuing in my role as the Director of Communications for Mayor Sim,” he wrote.

Sim has shown no indication that he’s interested in participating in the Kenney style of politics. The owner of two businesses often cultivates a laid-back “tech bro” style, dressing in jeans and T-shirts for council sessions and referring to city staffers as “team members.”

Rusnell has also reported that since leaving Alberta, Fleming’s own political style has become much calmer, according to former colleagues.

Boyle previously told The Tyee that the code of conduct complaints have made her wary of the mayor’s rosy portrayal of a united city council.

“It’s been very lonely and isolating to try to navigate this,” Boyle said about the first code of conduct complaint. “Sitting in meetings and hearing the mayor on stage at different events saying we’re all a team together — while I’m paying out of pocket to defend myself against this accusation.”  [Tyee]

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