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No byelection? No penalty, B.C. minister says after court ruling on Coquitlam's decision

The City of Coquitlam won’t be fined for not holding a byelection to replace Bonita Zarrillo after she won an MP seat.

B.C.'s minister for municipal affairs says the City of Coquitlam won’t be fined for not holding a byelection.

Nathan Cullen told the Tri-City News there "isn’t a pathway" in the Local Government Act — the provincial law governing the way B.C. municipalities run — for the ministry to penalize civic administrations if they choose not to schedule a byelection.

Under the Act, municipalities are required to hold a byelection "as soon as practicable" when a council seat becomes open, unless the vacancy is in the same year as a general election.

Coquitlam's move to not hold a byelection to replace Bonita Zarrillo, who quit council last October after winning a member of parliament position, was the subject of a court case this year.

In June, Justice Shelley Fitzpatrick threw out one part of a petition by Coquitlam residents Neal Nicholson and Wayne Taylor that, if successful, would have seen local voters heading to the byelection polls just before the 2022 civic election — set for Oct. 15.

The second part of her ruling came last week.

Nicholson, a former city councillor, and Taylor sought an order to quash the city's decision not to hold a byelection; they also sought declarations that the city failed to appoint a chief election officer and "failed and refused" to perform its statutory obligation to conduct a byelection.

But in her reasons for judgment, released Aug. 18, Fitzpatrick concluded "that it is not appropriate to proceed to consider the remaining relief sought by the petitioners" given the timeline.

“The dispute may still be ‘real and not theoretical,’ but the declarations sought would have no ‘practical utility’ in resolving the issues in the case,” she wrote.

The City of Coquitlam had argued, through an external law firm, that municipal staff were overwhelmed in the fall of 2021 with new COVID-19 protocols, as well as weather-related challenges that hampered the supply chain.

As well, it pointed out the high cost to run a byelection — estimated at $200,000 — the typically low turnout and the timing being close to a general election.

In a statement to the Tri-City News, city manager Peter Steblin said the municipality is pleased with the judge's two rulings.

"We can now put this behind us and allow our staff to focus on successful delivery of the general election in October while continuing to work with UBCM [Union of BC Municipalities] and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs to ensure that other municipalities do not find themselves in this similar unenviable situation," Steblin wrote.

"While we regret this has resulted in court proceedings, the city has followed the ministry's advice throughout and we remain of the view that there are strong policy and operational considerations, and sufficient legislative authority, for our position."

Nicholson and Taylor, however, contend Coquitlam flouted the law while five other municipalities in B.C. held byelections in late 2021 and early 2022: Nanaimo, Vernon, Silverton, Wells and Lytton — the latter of which saw a wildfire burn the village to the ground last year.

"We're disappointed that council's continued efforts to delay and throw up excuses to postpone a byelection effectively resulted in us not getting this declaration — the city made sure there would be no time for any action," Nicholson stated in a news release on Aug. 18.

"We pursued this suit because we felt Coquitlam council was thumbing its nose at the rule of law, and we felt someone had to call them on it," Taylor added.

The city declined to reveal how much the court case cost taxpayers, as the terms of its retainers with external legal counsel "are subject to solicitor–client privilege," said communications manager Kathleen Vincent.

• Are you running for a Tri-City council seat in October? The deadline is Monday, Aug. 29 to get your campaign announcement in print for our Sept. 1 edition. News releases received after that date will be published online only. Our VoteSmart guides will come out in the Oct. 6 newspaper, and we will also have full stories and videos online in the lead up to the Oct. 15 election.