British Columbia·Analysis

Rob Vagramov's sexual assault charge is political, whether he likes it or not

Many of Vagramov's supporters accuse Port Moody, B.C., councillors of trying to refight the last election by asking him to step down over sexual assault charges. At the same time, the mayor is taking firm opinions on controversial issues.

Until the Port Moody mayor's court case is over, his tie-breaking votes will raise controversy

Port Moody, B.C., Mayor Rob Vagramov speaks during a news conference after being charged with sexual assault on March 28, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

At 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Port Moody, B.C., Mayor Rob Vagramov said it was unfortunate everything had gotten so political. 

"I completely acknowledge ... there are folks in the community who have disagreed with my decision to return," he said, after city council voted in favour of asking him to take a leave of absence while his sexual assault charge remains unresolved.

"But at the council table ... I definitely see this issue being politicized," he said.

In his next breath, Vagramov said he was glad to see council pass motions in favour of his agenda — including one instance where he cast the tie-breaking vote.  

"I'm excited to see that these big priorities are moving forward, and we're getting back on track here at city hall," he said.

And therein lies the rub. Vagramov supporters accuse councillors of trying to refight the last election by politicizing the sexual assault charge and asking him to step down.

And the council is split on many subjects, meaning Vagramov could cast a deciding vote on controversial issues for the next three years.

There are no provincial guidelines to help them navigate the rare situation of having a mayor charged with a crime who will not step aside.

This has placed Port Moody's city council in a painful position, where politics are almost unavoidable. 

Road eliminated, Moody Centre judgment delayed

Vagramov won a narrow victory to become mayor in the last civic election and was charged with sexual assault in March for an alleged incident that occurred in 2015. By then the city's political culture was already divided.  Vagramov voluntarily left city hall for five months after the charges, but recently returned.

That tension has escalated in recent months — in public and social media. Council voted 4-3  on Tuesday evening to ask Vagramov to leave again. The mayor has not said whether he will do so.

After that vote, a motion was presented by Vagramov on one of his biggest election promises: pledging to remove a right-of-way for a potential road through Bert Flinn Park to lands in the north of the city currently owned by developers.

With Vagramov away for five months, the issue had been tied up in a 3-3 vote, but he cast the deciding vote to remove the possibility of the road from the city's transportation plan.  

Immediately after that, council debated another Vagramov motion to provide feedback to developers on what sort of plan they would like to see submitted for the area surrounding Moody Centre SkyTrain station. The initial motion said the preliminary plan — which not all councillors have seen in full — didn't match "current public sentiment," leading to Coun. Meghan Lahti to begin shouting at Vagramov.

"How the hell do we know what public sentiment is?" said Lahti. "This is hijacking a process that we as a group should have participated in."

In the end, council voted to defer the Moody Centre discussion to another day.

During Port Moody's council meeting, about 80 per cent of people in the crowd stood up when a speaker asked the audience to stand if they supported the motion calling for Vagramov to take another leave of absence. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

'No clear process'

The reason council is simultaneously asking Vagramov to leave while moving forward on his agenda is mostly due to Coun. Amy Lubik. She voted in favour of asking him to take a leave of absence, but also voted in favour of removing the right-of-way and has generally voted with the mayor.

She has lamented the lack of provincial guidelines to deal with a situation like this.   

"There's no clear process on a very emotional issue," she said. "I wish we weren't in this situation in our community. It's an emotional issue, and it's dividing our community, and for oddly complex reasons."

Whatever the reasons Port Moody is in this messy standoff intertwining policy and ethics — and if Vagramov and council can't resolve it — voters may have to wait three years to pass judgment on all involved.    

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

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

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