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Port Moody council looks for a way to get rid of ‘political toxicity’

Debate at Port Moody council has gotten so acrimonious at times, say some councillors, the group will get outside help from professional consultants to improve communication.
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Port Moody councillor Amy Lubik looks on during a meeting in 2019 as fellow councillor Hunter Madsen speaks to a motion for council to ask Mayor Rob Vagramov to resume his leave of absence while his charge of sexual assault had yet to be unresolved.

Port Moody council is going to get counselling.

At its meeting April 6, councillors approved a motion by Mayor Rob Vagramov to attend a series of workshops with consultants to help “improve effective and respectful communication.”

In an on-table memo, Vagramov said the move is a last resort “to get rid of as much political toxicity that continues to plague city hall as possible.”

March 23, Coun. Zoe Royer had also filed a notice of motion that called upon the group to work with professionals to foster “collaboration, integrity and authentic, respectful communications with one another,” as well as to create a safe, respectful, equitable and unbiased workplace” for all councillors.

In her statement, Royer accused some of her colleagues of “targeted efforts to control or ensnare women on council.”

In 2018, Port Moody council passed the first code of conduct bylaw for city councillors in British Columbia.

Coun. Meghan Lahti, who introduced the bylaw after studying several similar codes adopted by other cities across Canada, said at the time she hoped it would help hold councillors accountable by implementing informal and formal complaint processes as well as possible sanctions if a complaint is upheld.

Among other things, the bylaw holds councillors to treat each other, city employees and the public with “courtesy, dignity and respect.”

Several months later, after the 2018 municipal election elevated Vagramov to the mayor’s seat, veteran Coun. Diana Dilworth said it was time for council to heal wounds and “move forward” after a difficult and divisive campaign.

“Our community cannot thrive with division,” she said.

That spirit of all-for-one and one-for-all didn’t last long.

On March 28, 2019, Vagramov was charged with sexual assault and took paid leave from his position. Then in June, a day before council was to review the status of his leave, he announced he’d no longer accept his pay.

In September, 2019, Vagramov abruptly ended his voluntary leave, prompting Dilworth to file a notice of motion seeking the mayor stay away from city hall until his court case was resolved. She said failure to do so might contravene council’s own code of conduct bylaw.

A year later, Dilworth called upon the B.C. government to establish a code of conduct for all municipal politicians in the province after she said the mayor attempted to humiliate her and acted in a “condescending and misogynistic” way at a meeting held July 28, 2020.

Vagramov countered in a statement that he’d done his best “to treat folks with consistent respect and fairness, even in the face of blistering and oftentimes unsubstantiated attacks.”

Coun. Hunter Madsen called Dilworth “thin-skinned and prone — even eager — to take offence.”

Several times since, meetings have been punctuated by testy exchanges. Some have broken down altogether with agenda items still to be addressed as councillors refused to give unanimous consent to extend meetings beyond their mandated 10 p.m. curfew.

At the same meeting as Royer filed her notice of motion, Vagramov was rebuffed several times when he tried to extend an already elongated session to 11:30 p.m. The mayor promptly introduced a succession of motions to continue the session in descending five-minute increments that Lahti called “a complete waste of time.”

In his memo that he presented last Tuesday, Vagramov said he’s “lost hope that the situation will ameliorate” without outside help.