An independent review of District of North Vancouver council’s conduct in passing a bylaw to ban the keeping of pet pigeons has resulted in several recommendations but it does not make any conclusions about conflict of interest.
In December, chief administrative officer David Stuart asked former information and privacy commissioner David Loukidelis to conduct an independent review, after it was revealed Coun. Betty Forbes had lobbied her fellow council members to pass the bylaw while recusing herself due to a conflict of interest. The only known pet pigeons in the district belonged to her neighbour and, before she was elected, she had complained to council that they were hurting her property value.
The district made the 44-page report public on Wednesday afternoon.
After reviewing all of the relevant documents and council video, and interviewing members of council and staff, Loukidelis wrote a detailed chronology of the events that led to the passing of the bylaw, starting with Forbes lobbying council against pigeons in 2017, to her requests for bylaw enforcement against her neighbour shortly after being elected, to the negotiations between staff and Couns. Megan Curren and Lisa Muri on getting a report to council prepared.
“It is clear Councillor Forbes communicated with district staff about her concerns with pigeons, including her neighbour’s pigeons, after the 2018 election but before her July 8, 2019 recusal from the matter. It is also clear that, before her first recusal, she communicated with Councillor Muri and with Councillor Curren about this issue, including by asking them to support a prohibition on keeping pigeons.”
Under the community charter, a council member who has a “direct or indirect pecuniary interest” must not participate on a vote or “attempt in any way – whether before, during or after a meeting – to influence voting on any question related to the matter,” Loukidelis noted in his report.
The penalty for violating the charter is disqualification from office, “unless the contravention was done inadvertently or because of an error in judgement made in good faith.” A petition has since been filed in B.C. Supreme Court seeking the removal of Forbes and Muri from office. The two councillors have asked the courts to toss the petition out because it failed to meet several statutory requirements, including having it signed by enough local electors and failing to both file and serve it in a timely manner. They also both deny any wrongdoing.
Loukidelis makes several recommendations, including that the district assess its code of ethics to ensure it is current and sufficiently detailed and that the district should consider enhancing its conflict of interest training for both council members and election candidates. Training for newly elected members only lasted about 20 minutes and lacked any real world examples, Loukidelis noted.
He also says the district should require councillors to share any independent legal advice they receive about a conflict of interest matter with the CAO and municipal lawyer, who could inform council to “protect the interests of the district and avoid unnecessary litigation costs and public controversy.”
When Forbes consulted with Stuart during the summer of 2019, he told her he could not offer her legal advice and that “while there might be reasons for her not being a conflict, the optics of her being involved would not be good.”
Forbes sought independent legal advice on whether she was in conflict, but she told Loukidelis she was still confused by the letter she received from her lawyer.
Loukidelis also says the district should require council members to first discuss any reports they plan to submit to council with departmental managers.
And the district should also address its freedom of information and privacy practices as “some of the records that the district disclosed in response to freedom of information requests it received … were emails sent and received by councillors who had used personal email accounts,” Loukidelis wrote.
Kulwant Dulay, the man who owns the pigeons, said he had not read the report and was not prepared to comment on it.
In an interview, Stuart said the report is thorough, that the recommendations were good and he expects the district will adopt them.
“It focuses on the findings of fact, and gives us some recommendations for policy and process improvements. What it doesn't do is address the legal matters that are currently before the court,” he said.
As it stands right now, Dulay can expect the law to be enforced this spring, Stuart added.
“We have a legally passed bylaw, that's due to be implemented in May,” he said. “After council reads the report, it's up to them to decide as to whether they want to bring this back for some kind of reconsideration.”
Forbes declined to comment on the review “as there are some matters still before the courts,” she said in an email.
Muri also declined to comment.