UPDATED: Eight months after councillor resignation, no word from City of Revelstoke on by-election

City CAO, mayor do not respond to our questions on by-election to replace councillor who resigned in January.

Revelstoke City Hall covered in scaffolding and a plastic wrap this summer due to an exterior renovation project. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

(Updates on this story, with dates on the updates, follow below the original story. This original story was published on Sept. 23 at 10:30 a.m.)

It’s election time in B.C., with Premier John Horgan calling a snap vote on October 24 in an effort to capitalize on high opinion polls of himself and the NDP, taking the election skiff to shore, leaving Dr. Bonnie Henry to helm of the COVID-19 pandemic as the good ship government sails into stormy fall waters.

While election fever may have the Legislative Assembly in Victoria under lockdown until late October, Dr. Henry will be happy to hear that election fever hasn’t spread to Revelstoke City Hall, where there is still no word of a by-election to fill a council seat vacated in January, eight months ago.

Councillor Steven Cross resigned on January 21 over a council self-pay raise controversy, and there has yet to be any official word from city staff on a date for a by-election — pre- or post-COVID shutdown.

On March 18, the provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing announced that it was postponing by-elections in B.C. due to the COVID-19 crisis. At the time, Victoria, Rossland, Lytton and Kamloops had by-elections or referendums planned, and they were cancelled.

The situation was in limbo until July 29, when the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing announced COVID-19 procedures for by-elections, allowing them to resume. The new procedures allowed for enhanced mail voting, more advanced voting opportunities, curbside voting, and several other measures designed to make voting safer during the pandemic.

Since then, by-elections have resumed in B.C.; one has already happened, and many are scheduled for October and November.

But in Revelstoke, there is no by-election date. The Mountaineer emailed questions to city leaders last week, with a September 21 end-of-day deadline, but the mayor, Gary Sulz, and CAO, Dawn Low, did not reply to that email and follow-up emails.

A city communications staff member referred us to a radio interview the mayor had given, but that interview only mentioned by-elections in passing and didn’t contain details, nor did they address the questions we would have liked to ask.

Ministry points to rules, but offers no comment during B.C. election period

Getting no answer from the city, the Mountaineer reached out to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, which oversees many aspects of municipal elections. (Elections BC has a role in running the elections, but the municipal affairs ministry sets the rules.)

Citing the ongoing B.C. provincial election, the municipal affairs spokesperson said the ministry cannot comment on matters other than health and public safety issues.

They did refer us to two web links related to local government by-elections.

The rules state that “a local government must appoint a local Chief Election Officer for the by-election as soon as practicable (for example, as soon as reasonably possible) after a vacancy occurs.”

It’s been 56 days since the province announced by-election protocols in July, yet there hasn’t been any announcements from the city, and senior staff aren’t responding to media questions. Prior to the COVID-19 closure, nearly two months passed between Cross’s resignation and March 18, when the province announced by-elections were postponed due to COVID-19.

In another development, Councillor Nicole Cherlet has been announced as the NDP candidate for Columbia River–Revelstoke, leading to another potential vacancy if she is successful.

Analysis: Elections on collision course

If you subtract the period when by-elections were suspended during the COVID-19 period, the City of Revelstoke has had over three months when it could have appointed a Chief Election Officer, yet it has not to the best of our knowledge. By-elections are already scheduled and happening in other municipalities, but it’s unclear when it will happen here.

Since the COVID-19 closure started, city staff have ended media question period at city council meetings. City staff haven’t responded to media questions with clear and reasonable deadlines, so there’s that.

Coun. Cody Younker, who often fills the void in responses from city hall on questions from the public on social media or from the news media, noted that by-elections are costly and told the Mountaineer that he had hoped the by-election would have happened in the spring. “While I believe we should be holding this by-election very soon, I also believe that we should be waiting first to see the results of the provincial election.”

We’ve had questions from the public about the by-election over the months since January, and we finally decided to follow up. Unfortunately, despite reasonable efforts, answers are not forthcoming.

As the fall rains set in in Revelstoke, the by-election and B.C. election appear to be sailing on course for some kind of rendez-vous in the election sea.

UPDATE: Sept. 27, 3:45 p.m.

Update: Mayor says city has received permission from Elections BC, but declines repeated requests for interview, details 

Revelstoke mayor Gary Sulz says that the city has been “given permission” by Elections BC to postpone the by-election for the council seat vacated in January until after the provincial election.

In a statement mailed to media late in the day on Friday, September 25, Sulz said the reason for the delay, which puts on hold voters’ rights to select a council member to fill the vacant seat, was to save taxpayers’ dollars.

“As there have been recent rumours of a [p]rovincial [e]lection and as Councillor Nicole Cherlet had indicated a while ago that she may be running for the NDP we did not want to burden the community with two byelections (should she win) at the cost of $30-$50,000 a piece,” Sulz said in a statement. He also said he had “no further information to share” now.

Sulz also appeared in a radio program that was published on the city website, saying it was Elections BC who had given the city permission.

However, revelstokemountaineer.com contacted Elections BC during the week of Sept. 14 to seek clarity about the delayed by-election in Revelstoke, and they were clear that that organization does not administer local elections in B.C.

Andrew Watson, Director of Communications for Elections BC, said: “We don’t administer voting for local elections in B.C. (just provincial), so please follow up with the City of Revelstoke on this question.” That email came on Sept. 18.

In a follow-up telephone call, Watson said that it was up to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to answer questions related to the timing of by-elections, referring us to a ministry contact.

The ministry maintains a website on local by-elections, which sets out the rules of by-elections, including an explanation of who has responsibility for which aspect of a local election. It states that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is responsible for questions about election timing.

When asked in a follow-up email on Sept. 25 about this discrepancy, Sulz responded by email saying he had contacted Dawn Low, the City of Revelstoke Chief Administration Officer, who confirmed “her conversation” with “both Elections BC and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, prior to the dissolution of government.” Sulz said the ministry told them the city would be “within legislation” to do one by-election rather than two.

However, revelstokemountaineer.com contacted the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing on Sept. 18, prior to the dissolution of government on Sept. 21, and ministry spokesperson and Public Affairs Officer Marielle Tounsi didn’t provide information on any special permission granted to the City of Revelstoke to delay the election. In addition, under by-election rules, the Minister of Municipal Affairs has the authority to impose an election date on a municipality and appoint a chief election officer. Following the dissolution of government on Sept. 21, Tounsi said she could no longer comment on affairs other than safety or health questions.

Logically, this means that the city says they received permission to delay the by-election due to the provincial election prior to the provincial election being called on Sept. 21. If there is evidence for this, we have not seen it.

revelstokemountaineer.com subsequently requested contact information from the city for representatives from Elections BC and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing but has not received it yet, in part attributable to the fact the city statement came on Friday afternoon just before offices closed for the weekend.

No Chief Election Officer appointed yet

However, the legislation is quite clear. As referenced earlier in the story, council must appoint a chief election officer who then makes decisions about election timing. That did not happen prior to the COVID-19 suspension of elections in mid-March, nor has it happened since the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing announced COVID-19 by-elections procedures in July that allowed by-elections to resume.

Here is what the legislation says about by-election procedures:

(4) As soon as practicable after a vacancy occurs for which an election under this section is to be held, the local government must

-appoint a chief election officer for the election, and

-notify the minister of the election.

As soon as practicable after the appointment under subsection (4) (a), the chief election officer must notify the BC chief electoral officer of the election.

The chief election officer must set a general voting day for the election, which must be on a Saturday no later than 80 days after the date the chief election officer was appointed.

The rules are in place in part to prevent local politicians from meddling in the timing of the election, potentially denying or delaying residents’ right to vote. In this case, if the by-election is delayed until after the Oct. 24 provincial election, a delay of about a year between the when councillor Steven Cross resigned over ethics concerns about council handling of a self-pay raise plan, which was eventually abandoned by council, but not until after Cross resigned, touching off a public uproar. Of course, the five-month COVID-19 shutdown is factored in.

Council, staff in backroom discussions about election timing, but not at the council table

The issue of by-election has not been the subject of discussion at any public council meeting. The mayor has confirmed that a chief election officer has not been appointed. In an email, the mayor said that “we” had spoken to Elections BC, but it’s unclear who that is — city staff, council, or both.

In a comment on the original thread of this story, located below, Coun. Jackie Rhind acknowledged that council has been involved in the election timing discussions, prior to the provincial election call on Sept. 21.

“[I]f Nicole has to step down and we didn’t want to rush to hold the by-election if it meant putting community members at risk because we hadn’t put a proper (read: safe) plan together.” 

It seems clear that the mayor, councillors, and senior staff have been involved in discussions about by-election timing prior to Sept. 21. However, any decisions that were made did not come at the council table, and it remains unclear who is making the decisions about the by-election, when they were made, and who is responsible for them.

General local governance rules are explicit about where decisions are to be made, designed to prevent key decisions being made in shadowy backrooms then rubber stamped at the council table. Furthermore, the by-election laws are specifically designed to hand off administration and timing of the election to an independent third party as soon as possible, in part to prevent elected officials meddling with residents’ right to vote.

Senior staff responsible for election administration has not responded to media requests

Revelstokemountaineer.com has repeatedly asked for comment from Dawn Low, the Chief Administration Officer, and Curtis Slingerland, the Director of Corporate Administration, who has responsibility for the lawful administration of corporate affairs and also doubles as the communications contact for the city. Neither has responded at all to our multiple emails, the first of which was sent on Sept. 15.

The mayor has also refused multiple requests for interviews on this question, saying he doesn’t have any other information to share. In response to questions posed by revelstokemountaineer.com, Sulz has preferred to issue one-way statements, or appear on a local radio station on its mayor’s report. During the radio interview this past week, the mayor said the city had been granted permission to delay the election from Elections BC, but then when questioned by revelstokemountaineer.com, he changed the story to say it was also the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing who has granted that permission.

We have repeated our requests to the mayor for an interview, but he has either not responded to our requests or said he doesn’t have any information — an argument that should be given short shrift, since there are many accountability questions he could answer.

A departure from the past

When we spoke with Coun. Jackie Rhind, she acknowledged intercommunication between council members and staff on the election, but also said she was not aware that council members communicating about election timing among themselves and staff was a problem. “We very much make all decisions collaboratively. I trust that staff would make the right decision,” Rhind said.

The election and by-election process in Revelstoke has traditionally been a very buttoned-down process that is respectful of the laws governing elections. Typically, staff put the nomination of a chief election officer on the city council agenda, usually a senior city staff member, a common practice that is permitted in B.C. municipalities. Council gives the appointment the thumbs up without discussion, then everything related to the election process, including setting a date, hiring elections staff, and managing it, has been handed off to a neutral election officer, and there is no further council political involvement.

That’s not what has happened here, and there has been no chief election officer appointed despite clear political interference in the timing of the election.

Given what has transpired so far, will consideration be made to bring a third party chief election officer from outside the city to administer this election, something permissible under the law? Otherwise, it will be administered by a staff member who reports directly to city administration.

A by-election that started with a councillor resignation over ethics concerns about council actions has come full circle, this time the ethics questions are not confined to within the plastic wrap covering city hall, and is now spilling over into the provincial election.

More to come

We are still persisting in our efforts for accountability from the mayor and senior staff on this issue. As mentioned before, since the COVID-19 shutdown, senior staff have ended media question period at council meetings, and have simply not responded to our questions, or in the case of the mayor, refused multiple interview requests.

Aaron Orlando is a Revelstoke-based journalist who serves as creative director of revelstokemountaineer.com and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's been on the news beat in Revelstoke for the past 14 years, serving in senior editorial roles. If you have aaron@revelstokemountaineer.com or call/text him at 250-814-8710.