Saanich Councillor Susan Brice denies secret council meeting held

By David Broadland, July 6, 2015

Did a group of five Saanich councillors hold an illegal council meeting on December 4 last year?

That question has arisen as the result of documents obtained in an FOI request to the District of Saanich for communications between Councillor Judy Brownoff and other council members during the turbulent period at the District following November’s election. You may recall that Saanich councillors strenuously objected to the approach newly-elected Mayor Richard Atwell had taken when he proposed to replace CAO Paul Murray.

A December 3 email from Councillor Susan Brice to Brownoff and three other councillors (Leif Wergeland, Dean Murdock, Vicki Sanders) under the subject “Thursday meeting” stated, “Our appropriate [redacted] will be available for Thursday night so go ahead and let Donna know you are available to attend. Will keep you posted.”

Did these councillors then meet and plot to defeat Atwell's initiative?

The “Donna” referred to is the District of Saanich Legislative Manager Donna Dupas, who has the responsibility for scheduling council meetings, including arranging special, unscheduled council meetings. Brice has since confirmed that the redacted portion of the email read "legal council."

The email has been interpreted by many as meaning the five councillors met secretly, with Dupas’ facilitation. Such a meeting of councillors would have been illegal under the provisions of the Community Charter. Council meetings must not intentionally exclude any elected official, and public notice of a meeting of council must be given. In the case of an in-camera meeting, the reasons for holding the meeting in camera must also be provided to the public.

In an email to Focus, Councillor Brice said the assumption made by some people that she was trying to set up a meeting is incorrect. “The Mayor had let it be known that he wanted an in-camera meeting set up at the earliest possible date to deal with the future status of CAO Paul Murray. The legislative manager, Ms. Dupas, started canvassing members of council to find any date during that week [December 1-5] that all members of council could be in attendance. I had let it be known to the Director of Legislative Services [Carrie MacPhee] that I felt it was essential that the legal firm that Saanich usually retained to supply legal advice on personnel matters should be in attendance. The Director in turn advised all members of council of my position. As I had informally discussed that position with four of my council colleagues, as I had met up with them individually over the course of these days at municipal hall, I let them know in my email of December 3 that I had learned that counsel would be available for Thursday, December 4 and that they should let Ms. Dupas know of their availability to attend that evening and I did the same. An in-camera meeting did not occur on December 4 but the full council dealt with the matter on December 8.”

The gist of Brice’s statement appears to be supported by information provided to Focus by Atwell and Councillor Colin Plant.

Atwell told Focus earlier this year that Brice lobbied to delay an in-camera meeting to deal with the Murray situation until the legal counsel Saanich usually employed in such personnel cases could attend.

Plant recently told Focus, “I believe Councillor Brice when she says that her email to the other councillors was about stating that Saanich’s regular personnel lawyer was available to attend the Thursday meeting.  I do recall her raising the issue of having that particular lawyer there when the meeting was first called.”

Although claims that a secret meeting was held might have been put to rest by Brice’s explanation, Saanich council has not yet provided an explanation as to why it didn’t know about the past of the man they hired in January to take Murray’s place.

Last week Focus published details of a November 2014 investigation into Andy Laidlaw just before he left his position as city manager at the City of Campbell River and was hired as interim CAO in Saanich.

Since our story was published, former Campbell River Mayor Walter Jakeway appeared on CFAX to discuss some of the issues raised in Focus—in particular the investigation into Laidlaw’s business involvement in a consulting company that contracted with the City of Campbell River while Laidlaw was city manager.

CFAX’s Ian Jessop asked Jakeway, “If I was to suggest that the investigation found Laidlaw ‘guilty,’ would you disagree with me?” Jakeway told Jessop, “I would not disagree with you.”

The results of the investigation, and the recommendation of Campbell River’s outside legal counsel Dean Crawford, have not been made public. Even the existence of the investigation has been hidden by Campbell River. Jakeway told Jessop, “The public in Campbell River knew nothing about this investigation until Focus came out.” Jessop asked Jakeway: “They knew nothing about it?” “Absolutely. Totally zero,” Jakeway said.

“The problem I have is, because it has not been released, it’s still confidential…in this country people use confidentiality to cover up unethical behaviour. If they don’t want to let it out, they make it ‘confidential’,” Jakeway told Jessop.

Jakeway had previously told Focus that the investigation into Laidlaw’s activities in relation to the consulting company found they constituted a “conflict of interest.” Jakeway also confirmed the investigation found Laidlaw had improperly disclosed the confidential information of the City of Campbell River.

Saanich councillors are now faced with the choice of either hiding Laidlaw’s past history—like Campbell River’s council did—or conducting their own inquiry into why the Campbell River investigation was never brought to their attention either by Campbell River officials or by the staff member who short-listed Laidlaw for the position at Saanich, Laura Ciarniello. Ciarniello was a former colleague of Laidlaw at the City of Campbell River. She was also at the centre of the Saanich spyware scandal and was recently exonerated of any wrong doing by an investigation controlled by Laidlaw.

Laidlaw has declined to answer questions from Focus on this subject.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.