British Columbia·Analysis

Coquitlam's calm political culture faces test with explosive privacy allegations

The lack of transparency over the situation shows the downsides of the city's low-key political culture. 

City remains quiet after allegations the city manager’s daughter accessed confidential information

A flowchart shows the alleged relationship between Metro Vancouver, Acciona, Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, the city manager and his daughter.
Metro Vancouver alleges Acciona received confidential information about the impending termination of its contract with the regional government via the Coquitlam city manager's daughter, who worked for Acciona. None of the allegations have been tested in court. (CBC News)

It was a quiet and orderly council meeting in Coquitlam on Monday night —which is to say, it was a Coquitlam council meeting.

The meeting began at 7 p.m. with a half-dozen members of the public in attendance, started with a eulogy for a community member who recently died, saw virtually no disagreements between councillors, and wrapped up within the hour. 

About the only hint of tensions behind the scenes came with Mayor Richard Stewart's final words of the meeting: "Thanks, Pete."

"Pete" is Peter Steblin, who retired as Coquitlam's city manager following Monday's meeting. 

The circumstances of Steblin's departure after 15 years on the job are shrouded in rumours, following a legal filing alleging his daughter took confidential information from his laptop about a dispute between Metro Vancouver and Acciona, a construction company she was working for.     

Coquitlam and Mayor Stewart have been virtually silent on the matter, given that the leak is part of duelling $750 million lawsuits between Metro Vancouver and Acciona over the termination of a contract for a wastewater treatment plant. 

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The situation has damaged relationships between Coquitlam and Metro Vancouver for months, and calls into question how the city shares and protects confidential information.

However, the lack of transparency over the situation shows the downsides of the city's low-key political culture. 

A construction site with a crane in the background and heavy equipment with a sunset in the background shows the very early stages of the building of the plant.
A photo taken in the winter of 2021 shows construction underway at the North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant. (Acciona)

'Chill place politically'

"Coquitlam historically has been a pretty chill place politically," said Richard Dal Monte, a journalist in the Tri-Cities for more than 30 years, including almost 20 as former editor of The Tri-City News.

"Any kind of differences have been on the personality level … [councillors] tend to hold things pretty close to their chest. You don't tend to get people spouting off or blowing their tops." 

It's an approach that has given Coquitlam a level of stability and consistency in policies rarely seen for cities of its size. With just under 150,000 people, it's the sixth largest municipality in the province. 

But it also meant that following the allegations, the response from mayor and council was silence. 

"This is just incredible. As a resident I am gobsmacked. Wondering what [Coquitlam] council is doing. Anyone heard anything?" tweeted Coquitlam–Maillardville MLA Selina Robinson a week after the incident. 

It was only then that multiple Coquitlam councillors publicly expressed their concern with the situation, despite having known about it for months. 

"I absolutely think we can put some more information out," said Coun. Dennis Marsden, who expressed confidence the city's confidentiality and privacy policies were secure. 

"I don't believe there's a single voice around the table that isn't taking this as seriously as it should be, and ensuring that we can do our part to ensure it doesn't reoccur."

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart argued the 'legal processes' followed by Metro Vancouver 'aren't entirely accurate,' and predicted people will be surprised when the full story is revealed in court. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

Mayor: 'I'm frustrated as well'

Exact details will be unknown for some time. 

"I'm frustrated as well because I would love to be able to describe this more fully, because it's not as it's being portrayed," Stewart said in an interview following Monday's council meeting. 

Stewart argued the "legal processes" followed by Metro Vancouver "aren't entirely accurate," and predicted people will be surprised when the full story is revealed in court. 

In the meantime, Coquitlam looks for a new city manager, the city's influence on regional government boards has been diminished, and the consequences of a wastewater plant contract gone wrong continue to reverberate with another court date set for March. 

Whether that changes the political dynamics in Coquitlam remains to be seen. 

As Dal Monte points out, the benefit of having a cohesive council is fewer people speaking out when things might seem questionable. 

"I would think if you were in a place where things were more divisive there would probably be a lot more going on," he said. 

"I actually think it's a much, much bigger story than it's been treated as. However the challenge is ... how do you talk about it if people won't speak?"   


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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