British Columbia

Surrey's former ethics commissioner says more provincial oversight needed for office to be effective

As the city moves toward hiring a new ethics commissioner this year, Reece Harding says a lot needs to change in order for the ethics commissioner's office to be more transparent, independent and effective.

Reece Harding says investigation reports need to be public, province should help ensure office's independence

Harding says Surrey's current bylaw needs to be amended to make the office of the ethics commissioner more independent and transparent.
Reece Harding says a bylaw needs to be amended so results of ethics investigations could be made public, allowing the commissioner's office — and city hall — to be more transparent. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

Reece Harding was thrilled to take the job as Surrey's first ethics commissioner in July 2020.

The year prior, a motion was unanimously passed to create the Office of the Ethics Commissioner, with the goal of creating more transparency in city hall.

The mandate of the office — the first in the province — includes training council on ethical conduct, advising council on the city's code of conduct, and investigating complaints.

"I was quite excited with the opportunity, to be really honest," Harding said.

That excitement didn't last long. 

Harding says he spent "90 to 95 per cent" of his time investigating complaints, the result of animosity among elected officials over issues like policing.

"During that time, democracy was clearly at work in Surrey, but the public was also at work in Surrey and had been given a new tool by which to engage with mayor and council through an independent office, the Surrey ethics commissioner's office," he said. 

"People took advantage of that and there were lots of complaints filed."

But the outcomes of those investigations were also kept from public scrutiny thanks to a bylaw.

As the city moves toward hiring a new ethics commissioner this year, Harding says the bylaw, along with other things, need to change in order for the office to be more transparent, independent and effective.

LISTEN | Inside the office of Surrey's first ethics commissioner:

The city of Surrey became the first in the province to hire an ethics commissioner in 2020, but it didn't go quite as planned. CBC reporter Kiran Singh digs into what went right, what went wrong, and what might be done differently in the future.

'More built-in independence needed'

The bylaw limits reports on investigations — which contain results and recommendations — to closed meetings, unless council agrees to make them public.

It creates a big setback, says Harding, who recommended summaries of investigations be published on the city's website, which council did not adopt.

Holding elected officials accountable is impossible if the results of investigations are not made public, Harding says.

During his term — which ended in July 2022 — 71 complaints were filed although details of those complaints were not disclosed, except for two related to the former Surrey mayor.

Doug McCallum was the subject of an ethics investigation himself, with the Surrey Police Vote campaign claiming he had a conflict of interest for chairing the board of the Surrey Police Service while being charged with mischief by the Surrey RCMP.

In January 2022, seven months before Harding's term was up for a potential renewal, McCallum and supporting councillors floated the idea of putting a moratorium on further complaints to the office until after the October 2022 municipal elections.

During his time in the office, Harding dealt with 71 complaints but only two have been made public on the city website.
During his time in the office, former Surrey ethics commissioner Reece Harding dealt with 71 complaints, but only two have been made public on the city website. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

While the motion was subsequently dropped after pushback from residents and opposing councillors, it returned to the council agenda in April 2022 and passed.

All this took away the office's independence, Harding says.

"There should be more built-in independence for decision-makers of this nature to protect their office from the whim of elected officials to either close the office or relieve the ethics commissioner of their duties because what they've done is unpopular."

Current Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke says she is on board with Harding's recommendations, but changes need to wait until the new commissioner is appointed. 

"It should happen after [the appointment] because it's actually the ethics commissioner that's going to guide us in this," said Locke. 

Calling for provincial oversight

Harding says one solution is for B.C. to create a framework for municipalities setting up a similar office.

Lisa Southern, Vancouver's integrity commissioner — a role similar to Surrey's ethics commissioner — agrees.

"The provincial government has a mandate to go beyond just recommending folks have a code of conduct, but actually requiring it," said Southern. 

Lisa Southern, Vancouver's Integrity Commissioner, says the provincial government's mandate is to do more than just making recommendations for the municipalities.
Lisa Southern, Vancouver's Integrity Commissioner, says beyond making recommendations, the provincial government needs to enforce regulations. (Submitted by Lisa Southern)

Anne Kang, B.C.'s Minister of Municipal Affairs, declined an interview with CBC but said in an email the "government now requires all local governments to consider adopting a code of conduct within six months of taking office."

Although B.C. has introduced legislative changes to address elected officials charged with or convicted of a criminal offence, Harding says more is needed.

"We have elections every four years and there's a lot of time in between those elections where elected officials sometimes lose their way," he said.

"Those incidents fall short of what's considered under the legislation ... as disqualifiable behavior."


Kiran Singh is CBC's Surrey pop-up reporter and a story producer with The Early Edition at CBC Radio Vancouver. Reach him at or @vancitysingh.


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