Yellowknife’s deputy mayor resigned from the role on Thursday ahead of a critical meeting about the City Hall harassment inquiry, saying he did so to preserve his vote and voice.
Speaking to Cabin Radio, Councillor Adrian Bell said the way the position currently functions was removing his ability to weigh in on “serious, divisive” issues.
At present, council rules are interpreted as allowing Mayor Mark Heyck to pass the chair to Bell as deputy at any time, meaning Heyck gets to vote and speak on an issue but Bell cannot do either. (The mayor ordinarily doesn’t enter the debate or vote on any given issue, but can do so if he passes the chair.)
Bell said he resigned to ensure Heyck could not do the same at Thursday’s meeting. Bell remains a councillor following his decision to relinquish the deputy mayor’s role.
The meeting in question was a special meeting, hurriedly convened this week, in response to the findings being received of an inquiry into how the City handled harassment allegations dating to 2014.
The meeting took place in camera, meaning those who attended can’t talk about what happened.
“It came down to a meeting today at lunchtime,” said Bell. “I did not want to go into that meeting with the risk of losing my ability to debate and to vote.
“We had a meeting regarding a confidential personnel matter. It was related to the official inquiry and it was in camera, so I of course can’t talk about the details.
“As you can imagine, if you expect that votes are going to be close, the last thing you want is to lose your vote and your voice and not be able to persuade your fellow councillors or to weigh in. It really takes away the single most important part of a councillor’s job.”
Cabin Radio asked Bell if his decision to resign as deputy mayor ahead of the meeting had any impact on votes taken at the meeting. He replied: “If you’re asking me if I have any regrets … it was absolutely the right decision.”
Bell had served as deputy mayor since 2016. He has already announced his intention to stand for mayor in October’s municipal election; fellow councillor Rebecca Alty is currently his only declared opponent.
The issue over how the chair is passed at meetings of Yellowknife City Council is a thorny one because the wording of the relevant bylaw is too vague to support a definitive interpretation.
The bylaw fails to provide ironclad definitions of some key terms and, more importantly, never makes it entirely clear whether the deputy mayor can refuse the chair if the mayor asks to hand it over.
Bell says up till now, it’s been council’s “prevailing interpretation” – against his wishes – that the deputy mayor is forced to accept the chair in those circumstances, thereby losing their ability to enter the debate or vote.
Mayor Heyck, nearing the end of his two terms in office and having already announced he will step down, has recently passed the chair several times to take part in closely contested votes.
What exactly was being discussed during Thursday’s in-camera meeting, and the positions taken by Bell and Heyck, are not clear. Very few forms of vote may take place during in-camera sessions, though exceptions exist such as passing resolutions to direct staff; voting on related business must usually be carried out in public once the in-camera session concludes.
Bell said Heyck “did not react” to his resignation from the role.
‘A few days too late’
The issue of who does and doesn’t get to vote could be old news in a matter of days.
Council is already considering bylaw changes that would hand the mayor a vote, which would make redundant the whole argument over passing the chair.
Those changes are due for their third and final reading at the next council meeting, so Bell is resigning over an issue which is highly likely to be days away from resolving itself.
However, he said the contents of Thursday’s meeting were too important to ignore.
“Things are changing in a short few days,” he acknowledged. “We’re going to change the council procedures bylaw and so, right away, the mayor is going to have the right to vote and speak to an issue without taking away the deputy mayor’s voice and vote.
“But unfortunately that was a few days too late, in my opinion. I didn’t want to take any risk whatsoever of not being able to vote and speak on these issues.
“Now we are at the end of the term … the other benefits of the deputy mayor’s position – the ability to lead on files and greet dignitaries and other types of thing – there is really none of that left. Quite frankly, there is no upside to being deputy mayor for the next 45 days.”
Yellowknife’s municipal election is scheduled for October 15. Nominations officially open on Friday, August 31.
The findings of the City Hall harassment inquiry conducted by Vancouver law firm Miller Thomson, published in a three-paragraph statement earlier this week, appeared to largely exonerate the City.
However, the inquiry did say it was “more likely than not” City security cameras had been misused, an allegation previously directed at municipal enforcement manager Doug Gillard. The City says it is seeking external professional advice over how to proceed regarding those allegations.
Correction: August 31 2018, 19:40 MT. An earlier version of this article suggested votes can take place during in-camera council sessions. Most forms of vote cannot, though the Cities, Towns and Villages Act does allow for in-camera voting in some specific circumstances, such as when council makes a resolution directing staff on a matter. Further, we have clarified that Doug Gillard, while widely reported to have been central to allegations of security camera misuse at the City, was not specifically named in the findings of the official inquiry.