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City of Coquitlam, council sued for not holding a byelection to replace Bonita Zarrillo

“I don’t know why I, as a citizen, have to do this,” said Neal Nicholson, a former city councillor who is launching a court action against the City of Coquitlam for not conducting a byelection.
Neal Nicholson, a former Coquitlam city councillor, is suing the City of Coquitlam, with fellow Coquitlam resident Wayne Taylor, over council's decision not to hold a byelection.

Two Coquitlam residents are suing the city, as well as every member on council, for failing to call a byelection following the resignation of Bonita Zarrillo.

Last week, Neal Nicholson, a former city councillor, and political activist Wayne Taylor filed the legal action in BC Supreme Court in Vancouver to get Coquitlam voters to the polls.

The city was formally served yesterday (March 7), Nicholson said.

In their claim, Nicholson and Taylor allege that the municipality and council breached Section 54 of B.C.’s Local Government Act by not conducting a byelection to replace Zarrillo, a former city councillor who was elected as MP for Port Moody-Coquitlam last September (she tendered her resignation to city hall on Oct. 1, 2021).

That section of the legislation states that a byelection must be held unless the vacancy is after Jan. 1 in the same year as the general election; the next vote is on Oct. 15, 2022.

Last fall, following a motion by Coun. Dennis Marsden, council unanimously agreed to send a letter to B.C.’s minister of municipal affairs to request that the byelection rule be waived. They cited costs and the proximity to the general election; the 2013 byelection came in at $200,000.

But Nicholson told the Tri-City News on Tuesday that the city has the money set aside for byelections and the price shouldn’t be a factor for democracy.

“There is legislation that is plain and clear,” he said.

“There are no provisions. There are no excuses. A byelection must be held. That’s the law. It’s their due diligence to hold a byelection.”

Their statement of claim also orders the city and council to immediately appoint a chief election officer and to hold a byelection within 80 days.

Since last September, the Tri-City News has reached out repeatedly to the city’s corporate communications manager and to provincial ministry communications staff about Zarrillo’s vacancy, but the city has not responded other to say that it doesn’t comment on matters before the court.

On Tuesday, ministry officials re-confirmed their position via email, stating that byelections are required to be held “as soon as practical after a vacancy occurs unless the vacancy occurs within the same year as a general local election.”

“The decision to determine what is feasible (practicable) for a community by-election rests with the local government. Under the legislation there are no penalties if a local government chooses not to schedule a byelection.”

The email continued: “It is up to the council to work within the legislation and the public’s best interests to determine the next steps in scheduling a byelection and to communicate the timing with the public.”

In their affidavits, Nicholson and Taylor — neither of whom is seeking elected office — referred to two recent examples in B.C. where byelections were held after school board trustees rose to federal office last September: On Jan. 15, 2022, Milton Mahoney was voted to the Prince George board, while Naomi Bailey won a seat on the Nanaimo-Ladysmith board.

Nicholson, who was elected twice in civic byelections, in 2007 and 2010, said he’s disappointed that Coquitlam council is failing to act when other municipalities are.

“I don’t know why I, as a citizen, have to do this,” he said, noting the provincial minister has the power to appoint a chief election officer and name a date for a byelection in Coquitlam.