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Opinion: Elected officials exist in a terrible grey area, Port Coquitlam city councillor writes

Thinking of running for city council? Know the risks!
Port Coquitlam City Coun. Laura Dupont.

The following opinion-editorial column was submitted to the Tri-City News from Laura Dupont, Port Coquitlam city councillor and President of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association.


Re: Opinion: B.C. too slow in protecting civic politicians from poisoned workplaces, a follow-up to New Westminster Coun. Mary Trentadue’s Op-Ed piece from Oct. 29, 2021.


Thinking of running for city council? Know the risks!

Next year in October, the people of British Columbia will have an important opportunity to elect local governments, rural directors of regional districts and school trustees. 

My intent with this opinion piece is to inform and not discourage people from running.

It is a great honour to be elected by the people in your community, it is something not to be taken lightly, and it can be incredibly fulfilling work. Though the pay is low compared to our provincial and federal counterparts, the rewards can be immense. 

Local governments are closest to the people, and making thoughtful land use decisions can help your community be the best that it can be. Building a community is important work, but facing serious, unresolved conflict can make it much more challenging than it should be.  

If you are considering a run for office, you need to know that should the respectful workplace train go off the rails, there is quite literally nowhere to go. 

Closed meetings are a perfect place to hide the abuse, bullying, and intimidation that happens far too often in city halls around the province. The cameras are off, most of the city staff leave the room, and whatever happens after, nobody can say a word about. 

Elected officials exist in a terrible grey area that seems to be nobody’s jurisdiction. No one should have to learn this the hard way.

There is no human resources department, no parties to protect you, no unions to represent you, no mechanism for harassment complaints, no ombudsperson, no access to WorkSafeBC and believe it or not human rights legislation does not apply.

A few proactive communities have put Codes of Conduct in place, most have not.

The only real avenue local elected officials have is the court system, and it is very expensive and extremely time-consuming. It has also been said, and I believe this is true, that the courts are hesitant to second guess a duly elected council.

I cannot stress enough how deeply problematic it is that councils are tasked with “policing” themselves. I believe it is highly inappropriate, it is most certainly unfair, and from the stories we hear, it seems to be seriously ineffective. We are in political competition with one another. We should no more be overseeing one another’s conduct than it is appropriate for the police to investigate themselves.

City councils should never be our own “judge, jury, and executioner” but that is exactly the position we are put in.

With such a glaring lack of support and oversight, what local governments really need is an independent third party that can help support decision making on conduct, and help untangle the challenging situations when they arise.  

A few provinces in Canada have Integrity and Ethics Commissioners; unfortunately, B.C. does not. It is however, important to note that the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) is working to bridge the gap and find solutions for councils in conflict. We remain hopeful.

People elected to local governments deserve safe and respectful workplaces, like everyone else does. 

In recent years we have seen increased diversity on councils. More women and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of colour] have been elected and that’s a good thing if we want our local governments to reflect our communities. Unfortunately, more often than not it is those diverse members of council who openly express alternative or opposing viewpoints that become the targets of abuse. A workplace that fosters a culture of intimidation and discourages open dialogue will erode the important gains we have made, and serves to undermine the very process of democracy.  

It's not a cheerful message I send in my honest attempt to inform. Some things are impossible to sugarcoat. Deep admiration and strong encouragement for those who step forward to run to represent their communities.

Nothing worth it is ever easy.