Amid tense words, Victoria council likely to OK hiring of four unarmed constables

Victoria city council signalled Tuesday that it will likely approve the police department’s request to hire four unarmed special constables this year to ease the workload for sworn officers.

But, as in years past, police budget discussions triggered tense exchanges, including one between Coun. Jeremy Loveday and Chief Del Manak.

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The police department is seeking to increase its budget by 4.43 per cent to $58.2 million this year, which includes the addition of a pilot project to hire less-expensive special constables.

During deliberations at city hall, no councillor sought to remove the constables or any other police-related items from the city’s proposed budget for 2020.

Coun. Ben Isitt made clear, however, that he objected to police budget requests that continually exceed the city’s targets. This year, council wants to limit the overall tax increase to 3.4 per cent, based on the rate of inflation plus one percentage point.

“I’m personally not prepared to support these constant increases far beyond the rate of inflation,” Isitt said.

“It’s unsustainable and it might put me in the unfortunate position of not being able to support the overall city budget.”

Loveday followed those comments with what he described as a “pointed” question for the chief, in which he reiterated that the police department’s budget demands are often out of line with council’s targets. “In spite of this, chief, you’ve on many occasions criticized council in the media for approving a police budget increase last year that wasn’t quite as large as the one that had been requested,” he said.

“In the media, that’s often portrayed that this decision is making our community unsafe.

“At the same time, we’re now hearing that it’s external cost drivers outside of VicPD’s or the city’s control that are the reason for these out-sized increases. So my question to you is: If VicPD is granted this full budget request, will you stop criticizing council in the media?”

Manak called Loveday’s comments “off base” and said his public comments have always been factual, while recognizing that council has tough decisions to make when setting priorities.

“I continue to support council,” he said. “I will say that the pressures that we face are continual and they’re ever-changing.”

Manak said his officers are “run into the ground” responding to calls, while striving to meet new provincial standards. “They require our officers to complete maybe more investigative steps today than they ever have and it’s not getting any better.”

The chief added that he has “always been respectful, because it’s my community as much as it is yours, and I look forward to working with council as I have always in the past.”

Mayor Lisa Helps intervened and said that while the chief might not have intended to speak ill of council, “there’s a perception that that’s happened.”

She said council was seeking some assurance from Manak that, if the police budget passes as is, he would “change the narrative a bit” and “thank Victoria council for understanding the pressures on police.”

Coun. Geoff Young, however, objected to Loveday’s remarks and pointed out that the police department reports to the police board, not council.

“I do not wish to be associated with a comment from this council that says: ‘We’ve given you the money. Be grateful. Now shut your mouth and don’t criticize us.’ I just want to be clear that is not my point of view.”

Loveday countered that he was “not asking the chief or any member of the public to not criticize council. I think we’re a public body and we get criticized often and I think that’s fair game and I think that’s healthy for democracy.

“What I’m looking for is to not have criticism about the budget if we’re approving the budget.”

The city is still waiting to hear whether it will be forced to hire three police officers and a civilian that council refused to approve last year. The Victoria and Esquimalt police board appealed that decision to B.C.’s police services division, but it’s unclear when a decision will be made.

The police board won a similar appeal last year when the acting director of police services ordered Victoria and Esquimalt to hire six officers that Manak’s department was denied in 2018.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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