British Columbia

B.C. government to force criminally charged local politicians to take leave of absence

The B.C. government has proposed changes to municipal government law that would require local politicians to take a leave of absence if criminally charged, and removed from office if found guilty of serious convictions.

Several politicians have refused to step down in recent years, and councils lacked ability to force change

The B.C. Legislature building during winter, with two people walking past the fountain at the entrance.
Amendments to the Local Government Act introduced in the B.C. Legislature on Thursday would force mayors and councillors to take a leave of absence if charged with a criminal offence. (Ken Mizokoshi/CBC)

The B.C. government has proposed changes to municipal government law that would require local politicians to take a leave of absence if criminally charged, and removed from office if found guilty of serious convictions.

Amendments to the Local Government Act were introduced in the legislature Thursday by Municipal Affairs Minister Nathan Cullen, who said it would help maintain public confidence at city halls across the province.

"While our hope is that mandatory leave and disqualification will not need to be exercised, these amendments will help limit disruption, maintain public confidence and ensure local governments are able to remain focused on serving their communities," he said in a release.

The amendments would immediately disqualify local politicians if convicted of an indictable offence and would place them on paid leave when charged with a criminal offence until the process is complete or the charges are resolved.

It would also apply to directors of regional districts, but not school trustees, as they are governed through separate legislation. 

In theory, a politician could run for office after being convicted once they've served their sentence, but Cullen was skeptical of the outcome of any such situation.

"There is the natural consequence that exists for all of us who sit in elected office: you need the support of voters," he said.

The cloud that would exist over such a person having served time for an indictable offense, a very serious offence, to then seek the public's confidence again, that would be a matter between them and the voters in their city or town."   

Changes long requested

For years, local governments have been asking the province for mechanisms to deal with criminally charged politicians, and the announcement was heralded by the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM). 

"These amendments strike the right balance between fairness and good governance," said UBCM president Laurey-Anne Roodenburg.

The number of mayors and councillors in B.C. criminally charged while in office is low, but many of them have refused to unambiguously step down for the duration of proceedings against them, often causing conflict within their communities. 

They include current Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum, who did not take a leave of absence following a criminal charge for public mischief last December, stemming from allegations he made about being hit by a vehicle outside a grocery store. 

However, Cullen said that McCallum could continue remaining in office if the law passed.

"It's not retroactive. We don't pass laws in this place that go back to affect decisions and choices made in the past," he said.

Other recent examples in B.C. include Port Moody Mayor Rob Vagramov, who initially took a leave of absence when charged with sexual assault in 2019, but briefly returned to office for several council meetings before leaving once again after widespread criticism. (His charge was eventually stayed through the alternative measures process.) 

In 2016, Pitt Meadows councillor David Murray stayed on council after being charged with a 1992 sexual assault. After he was convicted in 2017, he only stepped down when the mayor asked him to.   

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