POLITICS

B.C. justice minister won't help Saanich police board over mayor dispute

01/16/2015 06:10 EST | Updated 03/18/2015 05:59 EDT
VANCOUVER - British Columbia's justice minister is refusing to investigate the behaviour of a Vancouver Island mayor despite a plea from the district's police board for her help.

Suzanne Anton said on Friday she is keeping an eye on the situation unfolding in Saanich, B.C., where mayor Richard Atwell has accused the police of harassment and district staff of spying.

But the minister said the police board is at arm's length from the government and therefore it is not her job to investigate the mayor, who is the board's chair.

"At the moment it's really up to them to manage their internal affairs as they see fit," she said. "My role is to make sure there is good policing in Saanich. There is good policing in Saanich."

The board issued a statement this week that said Atwell's conduct put members in an "untenable position," and that it had asked him to step down until it received advice from the minister.

Board member Lori Staples said on Friday after hearing of Anton's response in the media that she does not know what the board will do now. The board's next meeting is in early February.

"We wouldn't have contacted her if we thought we could deal with it on our own," she said.

Staples said the board does not appear to have the power to kick out a sitting chair under the Police Act, only to elect a new chair if the current one is absent or unable to act.

"We are totally stymied by the Police Act," said Staples, who is a lawyer.

Atwell did not return requests for comment on Friday. He agreed not to chair a police board meeting on Thursday, but told reporters he has not decided how to respond to the call for him to step down.

At a news conference earlier this week, the rookie mayor suggested police leaked details of a reported altercation with a supporter's fiance and said he has been pulled over four times by officers since running for mayor.

The mayor also told the media that he lied when he denied having an extramarital affair.

Atwell, who was just elected in November, said he believed spyware was installed on his office computer. Police later concluded that the software was installed to protect the computer network from outside threats.

Ross Poulton, acting deputy police complaint commissioner, confirmed his office had received two complaints from Atwell and said it would take a few weeks to determine whether they warranted investigation.

Saaanich Coun. Judy Brownoff said council is trying to carry on with its business but it has been challenging because of the mayor's distrust of district staff.

"It's just very hard to understand. We've asked him to let us know what we can do to make him feel more comfortable at the municipal hall. Tell us what you need. We just want to get on with our business," she said.

She said council hopes to announce next week an interim chief administrative officer to replace Paul Murray, the man Atwell unilaterally forced out in December — a move that cost taxpayers about $480,000 in severance.

She is hopeful that a new top bureaucrat will help council move forward with strategic planning and the budget, two issues that have stalled during the mayor's brief tenure.

Brownoff has been a councillor for two decades and said she has never encountered a situation like this one. However, she said council is not seeking to oust Atwell or limit his powers.

"Quite honestly, the mayor was elected as were all eight of us. So I expect that the residents expect us all to work together," she said.

"Since all of these things appearing in the media, we have now been getting a lot of emails around that. I have just said to people, 'You need to let the mayor know of your concerns.'"