Port Alberni city council is considering a code of conduct after public complaints emerged about the city’s handling of a bylaw violation at a pub owned by a city councillor.
The issue has been a thorn in council’s side since Neil Anderson, a city resident, first raised concerns about building code irregularities in 2020 at the Kingsway Hotel and Pub, owned by Councillor Helen Poon.
Anderson has appeared before council since then on multiple occasions, pressing for greater transparency and accountability from council in answering public inquiries related to city business.
An abrupt discussion during a Dec. 13 council meeting gave rise to additional concerns. Poon apologized at the meeting for her misconduct as a public official in allowing renovations without a permit, but the subject was omitted from the meeting agenda and not included as a late item addition, which is standard practice.
At that time, Poon’s colleagues on council said elected officials are held to a higher standard and the matter involving the bylaw violation had created a perception that politicians receive preferential treatment from city staff.
At Monday’s regular council meeting, Mayor Sharie Minions read an introductory statement, tacitly acknowledging the matter should have been handled differently at that stage.
“As elected officials we are responsible for making decisions that affect the daily lives of residents, families, the business community and many others,” she said. “We take this responsibility very seriously.”
Mayor and council have an obligation to respond when public questions arise over circumstances involving the city or decisions by council, she said.
“Learning a great deal from this experience, council is beginning to explore a council code of conduct and more clear policy around how council and staff respond to community concerns,” Minions said. “We thank members of the public for holding us accountable while we continue this work.”
Part of their difficulty in dealing with the issue stems from the fact that the bylaw violation was a private matter unrelated to Poon’s public role, Minions said following last week’s meeting.
After the December meeting and apology, Anderson persisted, saying council still had not properly responded to his concerns. Encouraged by council, the mayor met with Anderson and decided to address the issue before last week’s council meeting.
“This is such a strange situation for us to know how to handle,” she said. “There is only so much we can do because it is a private business matter, it’s personal.”
At its September 2021 convention, the Union of B.C. Municipalities endorsed a resolution calling on the provincial government to create an independent office of integrity for local government. More than 80 B.C. municipalities have created their own codes of ethics in recent years, but the codes are not required by law.
Council has not reached the stage of drafting a code of conduct, but council plans to have one in place before the current term of office ends in the fall.
“I think there are a number of areas where the process could have been improved,” Minions said.