There was a weird event in Council last week, following something that got a little media news on the TriCities, if not much mileage here in New West. This week, New West Council moved to take a piece of correspondence out of closed, which means I am now able to talk about it. I should probably add that to this post one of my semi-regular caveats that this blog is my writing and contains some of my opinions and should not be construed to reflect the official position of the City or the opinion of anyone other than me.
The first point here is to clarify why City Councils have in camera, or “closed” meetings at all. There is certainly a broader collection of topics talked about in Closed than suggested in the news report linked above. Pretty much every Monday, Council has a closed meeting, usually just before the regular or “open” meeting. At those meetings we talk about things that fall under Section 90 of the Community Charter, which you can read here in its full breadth. This is the Provincial Law that governs how local government councils operate, and Section 90(1) list the reasons a council may discuss items in closed, where Section 90(2) talks about where council must keep the topic in camera – a not-unimportant distinction.
The topics typically discussed in closed are ones you might expect – real estate negotiations, human resources issues, advice from our lawyers, or involving information about a member of the public that is subject to the privacy protection provisions of FOIPPA but also many things beyond that involving security of the organization, procurement, negotiations with senior governments, financial planning, and more.
Of course, there is very little the City can do that remains secret – we eventually have to make an open decision before we spend money or adopt a bylaw, so most things discussed in closed eventually end up in open reports. When we buy or sell a piece of land for example, we operate those negotiations in closed (to assure we have a competitive relationship with the purchaser/seller), but the final purchase/sale agreement comes to an open meeting and is publicly voted upon. The line item of the price we pay also ends up in a financial report. Review of appointments to City Commissions and Advisory Committees or hiring of senior managers necessarily contain a significant amount of personal information about applicants, so that information is kept in closed, though the final decision of whom to appoint is brought to an open meeting.
The decision whether a subject can or must be discussed in closed usually happens long before Council even sees the Agenda, and the City Clerk (whose skills include an encyclopedic knowledge of the application of Section 90, and who gets advice from the City Solicitor if there are any doubts) usually makes the call, though there may be discussion with Council. It is important to note in this case that Section 90 also applies to Metro Vancouver Board and the committees within, and if necessary, communications from the City to Metro Vancouver about those boards.
It is not unusual for municipalities to communicate with each other about how regional boards operate. The City of New Westminster sends representatives to Metro Vancouver boards and committees, agencies like E-Comm, the Fraser Health Authority Advisory Council, Municipal Finance Authority, and others. It should be no surprise to anyone who follows New Westminster Council that we have been pretty proactive at seeking diversity in the representation on those boards, just as we have for our own advisory committees, and that has included some communications with other Cities to coordinate equity-seeking actions.
But this is something different, something much less positive, but concomitant with creating a respectful and safe workplace for all persons.
At the time that New Westminster wrote this letter, the Mayor of Port Moody was indicating that he was ready to come back to work at Port Moody Council, though it was unclear if the legal case against him had been resolved, or what that resolution entailed. This return to work was, to use the technical term, a shit show. Debate about whether he should have returned to work made clear that the only person with the power to prevent him from doing so was himself. His Council and the residents of his community were powerless to remove a person facing a serious criminal charge.
During this time, it was not reported that Mayor Vagramov also returned to work on Metro Vancouver committees. This resulted in the situation where other regional leaders, often including a member of the New Westminster Council, had to sit in committee meetings beside a person charged with sexual assault while the case was still before the courts. That is not an acceptable situation to me, and it is clear from the letter we wrote that this was not acceptable to the majority of New Westminster Council. Unlike his decision to return to his regular Council duties, he serves at Metro committee at the pleasure of his Council, and it is within that Council’s prerogative to remove him from that position until his legal situation was resolved. New Westminster appealed to Port Moody Council to exercise that prerogative, to assure that all members of our Council and Councils across the Lower Mainland are able to exercise their duties in a respectful and safe workplace.
Yet another gross part about this is that someone in Port Moody leaked this letter to the media before it was released from in camera, which is likely a violation of the Community Charter, but I’m not a lawyer. Why they did it is unclear, but it smells of shitty politics. Ultimately, it was fated to come out to the public sooner than later, but by jumping the gun the person who leaked the letter put many people, including me, in the difficult spot of having to say “no comment” to the media when asked about it, because for us to comment on it would itself be a violation of Section 90.
So New West Council lifted the resolution and letter from closed this week, allowing us to speak about it. But in many ways it speaks for itself.
This is a gross situation, and it is far from resolved. Vagramov has not been “exonerated” as he claimed, and the way he and his lawyer shrugged off the original accusations with the “awkward date” language further the ongoing patterns of victimizing and the accuser by robbing her of a voice. This is not an act of apology, and shows a profound lack of self-awareness, of judgement, and of understanding of a power imbalance being asserted.
That there is no way to remove him from his position of power is problematic, but that is not something we can do anything about, and need to ask the provincial government to make changes to the legislation. That my colleagues in New Westminster and across the region, some of whom may have been victims of sexual assault and have felt this case more personally than I have, will now have to choose between serving beside Vagramov on a Committee, or removing themselves from committees. He should not have the power to force others to make this choice, and they should not be the ones stepping aside.
The letter from New West Council was written at a time before this matter was “resolved” in Vargamov’s mind, but I do not think it is resolved in the minds of many people. I think it is still appropriate to call on his Council to remove him from Metro Committees, and I hope that the provincial government can finally bring in some legislation to address these issues when they arise.