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Coquitlam politician criticized for ditching city meeting to go to rally

Coun. Bonita Zarrillo excused herself in advance from Monday's committee meeting to take part in the National Day of Action Against Anti-Asian Racism, at the Lincoln SkyTrain station.

A Coquitlam civic politician who’s campaigning for a federal seat is coming under fire — for the second time this year — for allegedly failing to attend to her council duties.

Coun. Bonita Zarrillo, who was acclaimed as the NDP candidate for Port Moody-Coquitlam, left Monday’s council-in-committee meeting after 30 minutes to take part in the National Day of Action Against Anti-Asian Racism, at the Lincoln SkyTrain station.

Zarrillo, who was at the committee meeting via Zoom, had advised chair Coun. Trish Mandewo and the clerk’s office in advance that she would be leaving early, said Stephanie Lam, Coquitlam’s legislative services manager.

“Reasoning for absences are not required of councillors,” Lam told the Tri-City News in an email. (Mandewo later confirmed she was notified.)

Zarrillo’s partial non-attendance was noted by Mayor Richard Stewart following the 90-minute meeting, before council went into a closed session; earlier, council had heard a city staff report on the Southwest Coquitlam Housing Study, which Zarrillo missed hearing live.

Wednesday, Stewart told the Tri-CIty News that he didn’t know why Zarrillo’s screen had disappeared and asked city staff if she had excused herself from the meetings. 

It wasn’t until a photo of Zarrillo appeared on the Tri-City News’ website about the Metro Vancouver rallies that the mayor connected the dots, he said.

“We weren’t aware that there was one [rally] locally but I think all of council would have liked to have been there,” he said, adding, “Our council has been really good about their work ethic…. We want all of our council members to be focused on the work at hand.”

And while he admitted that there are times when councillors have to duck out for jobs and appointments, Stewart said local politicians can’t be reprimanded under the Local Government Act until they miss three full council meetings in a row.

In January, Zarrillo ignited a firestorm on social media about public health and safety protocols at city hall while she was attending committee and council meetings; Stewart and Coun. Chris Wilson responded to her Facebook posts while the meetings were live and being recorded.

As for leaving early on Monday, Zarrillo told the Tri-City News that she was standing up for her “constituents who aren’t being heard” by being at a Stand With Asians Coalition-organized rally at Lincoln Station.

She cited a recent report from Bloomberg that labels Vancouver as the “Anti-Asian Hate Crime Capital of North America” and she pointed to a racist confrontation at Coquitlam’s Town Centre Park last month in which Port Moody resident Gina Chong was verbally attacked.

“I had the opportunity to stand up for Asians … and against racism and discrimination as a city councillor — not as a federal candidate,” Zarrillo clarified. “I’m looking out for their safety and dignity.”

And though some people have criticized her for leaving a civic meeting to attend a protest, Zarrillo insists that supporting Coquitlam residents is her “highest priority.”

“This is for the city constituents,” she said. “This needs to be talked about in our community. I’m hearing stories that people don’t want their parents to use transit anymore. I’m hearing stories about someone’s house being egged. It’s heart-breaking and there’s fear.”

“As a community leader, I want to be there for them…. I feel so strongly that all of the community should be heard.”

As for her council counterparts being piqued with her early dismissal, Zarrillo responded, “I hope they would understand. It’s about the community being harmed…. I’m just doing the work.”