Elections BC has contradicted City of Revelstoke Mayor Gary Sulz’s explanation for continuing delays to the Revelstoke by-election to replace a city councillor who resigned over ethics concerns related to a council self-pay raise controversy.
In an interview on radio station EZ Rock last week, Sulz said the City of Revelstoke had received permission to delay the by-election until after the provincial election. The City of Revelstoke also made a statement on their Facebook page on Sept. 25, where it included a link to the radio interview.
This story is part of ongoing revelstokemountaineer.com coverage of issues with the by-election process in Revelstoke. For background on this ongoing story, we strongly recommend reading our initial coverage here, including stories published on Sept. 23 and significantly updated on Sept. 27 here first:
“[T]he Mayor advised that Elections BC has given the City the okay to wait until after the provincial election concludes,” the City of Revelstoke stated on its Facebook post.
However, as reported on revelstokemountaineer.com, on Sept. 18, an Elections BC spokesperson said that organization doesn’t administer voting for local elections in B.C., and advised us to follow up with the City of Revelstoke.
In his interview on a local radio station on Sept. 24 (or possibly Sept. 25), Sulz again reiterated that a decision to wait had been made. “[S]o we have seen that our councillor Nicole Cherlet has put her name into the hat for the NDP, and we’ve gone to Elections BC to ask for process and whatnot, and rather have rushed the by-election because of the councillor that left and have to re-do it, we’re basically waiting to see what’s going to happen here and then go forward.”
In a September 25 email to the Mountaineer and the Revelstoke Review, Sulz repeated the claim that the city had been given permission for its action. “We have spoken with Elections BC and have been given permission to wait for the by[-]election until after the [p]rovincial election,” Sulz stated.
Following Sulz’s explanation, we reached out again to Elections BC, providing the city’s Facebook post and a link to the mayor’s radio interview.
Once again, Elections BC spokesperson Andrew Watson confirmed the organization is not involved in this kind of decision. “To confirm, Elections BC does not administer voting for local elections in B.C., and setting the timing for local by-elections is not part of our mandate.”
The by-election laws are clear: as soon as practicably possible after a council seat is vacated, the municipality must appoint an independent chief elections officer, who is responsible for setting the election date. That has not happened yet.
City CAO Dawn Low admits no ministerial approval was given
In response to reporting by revelstokemountaineer.com, the city administration’s explanation for the situation has changed, but not before publicly stating via social media and to statements to all local news media an explanation that Elections BC had given them permission.
Low later changed the story, saying that they’d received permission from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) and Elections BC. The laws do give the MMAH authority in elections timing decisions. Provisions in the law allow the minister to intervene and set an election date, going over the head of the local council to appoint a chief election officer.
Low herself said, “I am the person who spoke with the ministry.” In response to our questions in a Sept. 28 phone call, Low said that the minister had not approved the city administration’s course of action. Who within the ministry has the authority to approve consequential by-election decisions is unclear — the laws mention the minister’s authority on the matter.
Since the mayor and administration’s first explanation changed — that they had received approval from Elections BC — we asked for evidence, such as an email or a contact person within MMAH in order to confirm this new assertion that MMAH had approved their decision.
Instead of providing it, thus putting an end to a growing controversy, Low did not, but said she’d look into it. Later she referred us the Government Communications and Public Engagement Office, saying, “I was given advice to please refer any media requests about the Ministry’s role in the by[-]election to [them].”
Predictably, as it has been the case with our previous enquiries of the provincial government on this issue, the response to our enquiry resulted in our third denial from the MMAH: “As I had mentioned previously, during the election period, all Government of B.C. communications are limited to health and public safety information, as well as statutory requirements,” said MMAH ministry spokesperson Marielle Tounsi. “That being said, I would recommend that you direct any Revelstoke by-election questions you have at this time to the municipality as they may be able to provide you with more information.”
So we did. We noted the MMAH’s reply, and once again asked Low for an email, a contact person, or any kind of reasonable proof that the mayor and administration had received permission or approval, as they stated publicly, prior to the dissolution of the provincial government due to the provincial election on Sept. 21. We set a clear and reasonable deadline for a response by the end of day on Oct. 1, but the city administration reverted to its old tactics: simply do not respond to media questions at all. Our deadline came and went with no response.
It should be noted that our first enquiry about the by-election came on Sept. 15, when ministry staff could have responded prior to the Sept. 21 provincial election announcement, but our questions to the mayor and senior staff were ignored with no response.
Story shifts again
The mayor has stated publicly in a radio interview which was published on the city website, that, “rather [than] have rushed to by-election because of the councillor that left and have to re-do it, we’re basically waiting to see what’s going to happen here and then go forward.”
Despite admitted backroom discussion between council, the mayor, and administration about by-election timing, and an over two-month delay since new COVID-19 by-election procedures were announced in July, with no chief election officer appointed yet, Low said that the by-election decision was council’s decision, saying it had yet to come.
Low now says that the decision is council’s and it has not been made yet.
“There has been no decision,” Low said.
When we pointed out the city’s statement on their Facebook page saying they’d been given the OK from Elections BC “to wait until after the provincial elections conclude,” Low dismissed the city’s own public statement: “Those were words, and it’s a council decision is what I’m telling you.
“Council has not decided. They are still considering it,” Low said. This, despite the fact that the by-election has not appeared on any council agenda since new COVID-19 procedures were unveiled in July. This is a local government basic, but it seems timely to review it here: council decisions must come at public council meetings, on an agenda. There is a constellation of rules and procedures in place to prevent council from making backroom decisions, specifically ones that benefit current council members.
When asked why other municipalities across B.C. had managed to get their by-elections underway, Low claimed that was because, “[t]hey had already appointed their chief elections officer,” prior to the election. But in fact, four ongoing by-elections were cancelled in March due to the COVID-19 shutdown, and there are 11 by-elections scheduled or have been completed across B.C. now.
Revelstokemountaineer.com has made several direct requests for an interview with Sulz, but he has refused all of them, emailing only brief statements, some of them included in this story. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, there has been no media question period at city council meetings, so without voluntary access, we don’t have much recourse to get comment from the mayor.
Councillor who resigned over ethics concerns reacts
We reached out to former Councillor Steven Cross, who resigned in January citing ethics concerns over a council self-pay raise controversy. He said he supported delaying the election to potentially save money, but added: “I find the statement that Elections BC has given permission to be like much else emanating from our [m]ayor and CAO these days – a skewed, somewhat inaccurate portrayal of what is really happening, rather than just being 100% straight with people. There seems to always be this need to put the onus of choices made on some other entity, be it the province, or the lawyers, or something else, rather than on themselves, and I see that as discouraging for residents.”
Analysis and our viewpoint
The by-election file needs to be on a council agenda ASAP with a full report, plans, and recommendations. Council is in a position to salvage this listing ship, but each member must understand their roles and responsibilities and come prepared. They must set course, not be left flapping in the wind. A simple news media ask of the mayor and CAO for a by-election update was stonewalled, then the story changed, inappropriate conversations were revealed, decisions had been made off agenda, and some councillors seemed unaware that the backroom is not the place to decide when residents get their right to vote. A council by-election isn’t a big deal to most residents, but the laws that protect voter enfranchisement are. This situation was avoidable by following by-election laws like every other municipality, who have their post-Covid-19 shutdown by-elections scheduled, some completed. If not, make the decision in public. Not doing so raises ethical questions about council benefit, including Councillor Nicole Cherlet, who is running provincially for the NDP as an MLA candidate for Columbia River-Revelstoke. Pushing forward the needed by-election date means the cost of one election is guaranteed, absolving her of imposing the cost of a by-election on municipal voters two years into a four-year term. The justification — saving taxpayer dollars — is only a possibility at this point, only if she is successful in her provincial election bid. The mayor even said on the radio in his mayor’s report that he’d discussed by-election timing with her — off any agenda and with no public statement or communication until pressured from the news media. In a two-page opinion piece in the February issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine (pages 14-15), we highlighted how city communications is hurting residents, putting councillors through a meatgrinder, and specifically pointing out the lack of communication on the by-election. Since then, the mayor and senior administration has further retrenched their lack of accountability, ignoring uncomfortable media questions, cutting off media access to senior staff, ending media question period at council meetings (in part due to COVID-19, but with one councillor we spoke to this week unaware of the situation, and the CAO telling us this week it would be up to council to request question period be reinstated), and simply stonewalling — no replies to emails until forced to by public reporting. As the current board of 100% first-term councillors have likely learned by now, when the good ship government starts taking on water, everyone on board gets soaked. The SS City of Revelstoke is foundering on the by-election issue and council needs to find the leak and patch it up. After all, it’s only city council who voters can force to walk the plank, and council needs to decide publicly their level of culpability for decisions opaquely emanating from city hall. Part of that council decision process should include accountability, self-reflection, and clarity about why the ship was sailed directly into the iceberg in the first place, despite everyone seeing it on the horizon for weeks, if not months.