Allegation of abuse of power: Vancouver mayor cleared by integrity commissioner after code of conduct complaint

Vancouver City Hall is seen in Vancouver on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

An ad hoc integrity commissioner tasked with investigating allegations of "extremism" sided with the mayor of Vancouver.

The commissioner's report, released with a statement from Mayor Kennedy Stewart, suggests Lisa Southern did not find any evidence of conflict of interest or abuse of power.

The investigator, of Southern Butler Price LLP, wrote that she was asked to look into Stewart's behaviour after the mayor spoke out following reports of extremism within the board of the municipal political party known as the Non-Partisan Association.

A complaint was filed against the mayor for a statement he posted on Twitter in January alleging "extremism" on the NPA board.

His statement reads, in part, "Continuing media reports about the extreme views of Non-Partisan Association board members, including open support for hate groups, are deeply troubling and must be fully denounced and publicly condemned by NPA leaders."

Stewart claims leaders of the party have "so far failed to stop hate spreading."

Based on Southern's report, Stewart was referencing an opinion piece that ran in the Vancouver Sun and featured a photo of a board member making an "OK" gesture – seen by some groups as a symbol for "white power" – and wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat at a Vancouver rally against then-U.S. president Donald Trump.

Her report also includes, in its appendices, an article with the same image that was published on The Tyee's website and includes the sentence, "The images obtained by The Tyee compound worries by political observers that next year's municipal election could see an NPA slate with far-right extremist views."

That article was posted this year, but concerns were raised as far back as in 2019, when Coun. Rebecca Bligh announced she'd be leaving the NPA and sitting as an independent councillor. She said at the time that as a queer woman, she was especially concerned with some board members' affliaitions to groups opposed to the sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) curriculum.

Southern's report said Stewart's response followed a statement from the NPA criticizing the articles outlining allegations of extremism as "making false and defamatory accusations."

Southern wrote, "the NPA statement cited 'the poor governance of the City of Vancouver under Mayor Kennedy Stewart' as a contributor to the 'smear campaign' against NPA's new board member."

The complainant, a member of the public, suggested that, in posting a statement, the mayor was using city letterhead and staff to act in his own interest.

The complainant wrote, in part, "It appears the mayor of vancouver (sic) used the power of his office to chastise a number of his political rivals in a Twitter post yesterday.

"While I understand that as he is rightly free to be critical as 'Kennedy Stewart' I do not believe he may freely use city stationery and the trappings of his office when doing so, as this is directly using his office to attempt to exert outside influence."

Following the complaint, the city's manager appointed an ad hoc integrity commissioner to investigate whether the message posted on Twitter constituted conflict of interest, abuse of power, Code of Conduct violation or Vancouver Charter violation.

In her report, the commissioner wrote that the mayor submitted a written response, the complainant was asked to provide any more relevant information, and interviews with "employee witnesses" were conducted.

Stewart told Southern he felt he was "doing his job" when he sent out his response, saying the NPA's statement was not just directed at him.

He said there is a distinction between statements posted on "City of Vancouver" letterhead, and on his own, which has his name in addition to the city's logo, and that the mayor's office operates independently as a whole.

Southern wrote that, based on evidence submitted, she agreed that the mayor's office operates separately, and that the employees he consulted are part of his office's budget and different from employees of the city as a whole. She wrote that this system is not unique to Stewart – it's been in place for years.

Because of this, the commissioner found no conflict of interest, nor abuse of office. She said his actions did not violate the city's code or charter.

In a statement sent out along with the report, the mayor called the complaint "frivolous," and wrote that he was "vindicated."

"The 16-page report and accompanying 79 pages of evidence clearly shows that the actions I took were rooted in the understanding that, as mayor of Vancouver, it is my duty to stand up against hate and speak out in support of all residents of our city," he said.

Southern's report did not make any judgment on the content of the message that prompted the complaint, only that, as a separate entity from the city, the mayor's office is entitled to operate its own unique communication platform.