Leaked text messages shed some light on behind-the-scenes conversations around the time of the now-controversial Vancouver council votes that prompted calls for Green Coun. Michael Wiebe’s resignation, while new statements from both the councillor and complainant offer a glimpse of what could happen next.
Last month, a formal investigation found Wiebe breached conflict rules in May by supporting a city-wide patio expansion program despite his ownership interests in a pub and restaurant, with the investigator’s report recommending the councillor should resign.
Now, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has said he has “accepted the findings” of the investigator’s report, writing an Oct. 2 letter to the original complainant stating the “code of conduct complaint is now closed.”
But that complainant, Michael Redmond, says he hopes the matter isn’t finished. And while Redmond said he filed the complaint in June as a private citizen, after the probe concluded last month and became public through the media , he has been in touch with the Non-Partisan Association, the party for which he has volunteered in the past, and where his wife unsuccessfully ran for a board position last year.
The investigator’s report stated Wiebe was “disqualified from holding office,” outlining three possible routes to his removal, but its recommendations were non-binding. Wiebe could voluntarily step down, council could vote him out in an in-camera meeting or a group of Vancouver voters could seek a court order for his removal.
Initially, in the days after the investigator’s report landed last month, Wiebe said it was too early to say whether he would resign. But this week, Wiebe struck a more decisive tone, saying he’s hired a lawyer, at his own expense, and if need be, he’ll go to court to keep his job.
Stewart, whose office oversees code of conduct complaints about councillors, declined to discuss the matter, citing the process’s confidential nature. But Wiebe’s continued presence on council, including his participation in Tuesday’s meeting, seems to suggest either council never held a closed-door vote on the matter or, if such a vote was held, Wiebe’s removal wasn’t supported by the required two-thirds majority of council.
Wiebe, too, said he couldn’t discuss any potential closed-door council meetings. But when asked whether a group of citizens might now pursue his removal through the courts, Wiebe said Monday he heard there were “conversations happening” in some circles, noting the NPA leadership publicly pushing for his ouster.
The temporary patio expansion program was designed to help bars, restaurants, cafes and breweries stay in business while complying with COVID-related spacing restrictions. Wiebe said he believed he could support the measures without being in a conflict, because the program was city-wide, potentially affecting thousands of businesses other than his restaurant and pub, which were both eventually among the nearly 400 establishments to receive temporary patio expansions.
A major reason Wiebe ran for office in the first place was to help improve the way city hall deals with small business owners like him, he said, “and if I have to go now to the B.C. Supreme Court, if it goes in that direction, to fight for small businesses, that’s something I’m going to have to do.”
A private chain of text messages, between a group including council members and the mayor’s office, shows conversations about the patio program, just before and after the May 27 vote. After council unanimously approved the program, Wiebe referenced his own restaurant patio, toasting its impending expansion with the “cheers” emoji showing clinking beer glasses.
In light of everything that came later, Wiebe said he understands how it all looks, and said that celebratory text message is “not ideal.”
The text messages, which Postmedia News has reviewed, also showed the lead-up to the May 27 meeting where council was set to vote on the patio program, where Stewart’s co-chief of staff, Anita Zaenker, wrote to suggest NPA Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung move the report with Wiebe seconding.
When asked about the messages, Wiebe said Zaenker’s urging him to second the report wasn’t a factor in his decision to participate in discussions and votes on the patio program.
Zaenker said the messages show her working to help council function more smoothly, which is part of her role. But it’s not her job, she said, to monitor potential conflicts of individual councillors from different parties, and she would never advise any council member on such matters, except the mayor, for whom she works.
Redmond, the retired lawyer who filed the complaint in June after reading in the Georgia Straight about Wiebe’s patio votes, said that Zaenker’s suggestion that Wiebe second the report wasn’t really significant, nor did it excuse what he sees as the councillor’s conflict of interest. Redmond pointed out that by the time Zaenker sent the May 27 message about the report coming back from staff, Wiebe was already in conflict from weeks earlier, when he had supported the original motion directing staff to create the report.
Asked whether he and other citizens might pursue Wiebe’s removal through the courts, Redmond said: “I just can’t say anything about that right now.”
However, Redmond added: “I hope it’s not over, and I’m disappointed that the mayor and council are happy to apparently think it’s over.”
But even as more details continue to come to light about this matter, it remains an open question of what — if anything — will happen next.