Langford council amended its code of conduct policy during a raucous meeting Tuesday where proceedings halted for nearly 20 minutes after a man charged the podium and began yelling.
The changes stemmed from a report by the B.C. Office of the Ombudsperson over concerns that Coun. Lillian Szpak made inquiries about a parking dispute involving her son and another Langford resident last year.
While the report said Szpak asked senior city staff to find a solution to the dispute, creating a perception of bias, it concluded there was no administrative unfairness by Szpak or city staff.
The ombudsperson did, however, recommend that the city’s code of conduct — passed in February and limited to members of council making complaints — be amended to allow complaints to be made by municipal staff and committee members. Councillors voted to make the amendment.
The office also recommended further training for councillors and staff.
A long line of speakers vented their frustration over the policy, most aimed at Szpak for allegedly overstepping her authority in seeking to resolve the parking dispute between her son and neighbour Ed Court, who needed the parking space taken by Szpak’s son for special buses to transport his disabled son.
Several of speakers during the meeting were cut short on “points of order,” with Coun. Colby Harder saying they could not speak about the report because it wasn’t on the agenda, even though the report was referenced in the code of conduct amendments that were on the agenda. That led to frustration among speakers, many of whom had prepared notes.
“This just throws everybody off … can you just let us speak?” said Sandy Sifert.
“Councillors should not be directly involved in enforcement actions,” Sifert said. “Any action by council that is motivated by favouritism or personal animosity towards an individual may be perceived as an improper use of power.”
Sifert said the city should ask the ombudsperson to continue its investigation, so the public, city staff and mayor and council “will have complete knowledge of the truth.”
Others said the public should have the same opportunities to file complaints about conflicts of interest involving councillors.
Lisa Foxall questioned whether Szpak should be involved in Tuesday's vote. Foxall was interrupted on points of order and her mic was turned off after she said the “public has lost confidence.”
Wendy Hobbs, a school board trustee for 25 years, said she was against the updates to the code of conduct. “They do not tell the public they can make a complaint … Sooke School District does. We let all those thousands of parents come and make a complaint. Don’t be scared. You’re there to take on public scrutiny and criticism.
“I’m surprised the ombudsperson didn’t say you should start letting citizens make complaints.”
A representative of Court read a letter to council, where Court called the ombudsperson report’s recommendations “a way forward” and said they should be integrated into existing provincial legislation for municipal codes of conduct.
Court also asked the mayor and council to demand Szpak’s resignation.
As council was hearing the amendment motion for consideration, someone in the gallery started yelling, prompting Mayor Scott Goodmanson to say: “Hey … we’re looking for respect here.”
A man charged the podium, pointing a finger at Szpak and yelling before microphones were cut off and video of the meeting froze. Several staff and councillors at the table stood up in alarm. A five-minute recess ended up being nearly 20 minutes before council resumed.
Councillors discussed the motion to support the recommendations by the ombudsperson, with Coun. Mary Wagner saying she supports the motion but wants to leave it open for further additions that could include public complaints.
Szpak agreed with Wagner. “In terms of the ombudsman’s recommendations, I do support that,” she said. “I think it’s important to be open to changes in a code of conduct and ensure that it’s inclusive,” she said. “It’s crucial for fostering a collaborative and inclusive environment where everyone’s input is valued and respected.”
She said regularly reviewing and updating the code can help it to adapt to evolving needs and expectations within council, city hall and the community.
Szpak wants to make changes in the future to involve the public, but was cautious about making amendments now “because we don’t want to have tokenism.
“We want to ensure that when there’s complaints from the public how will they be managed? And do we have staff time, and what do other communities do?”
Harder said council has to do a better job in “communicating what we can do as a city to ensure that the public is heard.”
Goodmanson said he didn’t like the “exclusion of the public” in the complaint process of the code of conduct.
“The public needs that comfort, that something’s there that will be looked into,” said Goodmanson. “I agree with the recommendations — I just wish they included the public’s ability to make a comment.”
Goodmanson was the only one on council to oppose the motion, which passed 6-1.
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