Vancouver lawyer Reece Harding has been piped aboard as Surrey’s first Ethics Commissioner, to help city council run a more open, transparent and accountable ship.
His new job is also a first for this province. Harding, 54, a resident of Port Moody, was chosen unanimously by city council over more than 30 other well-qualified candidates. Besides advising council on matters of ethical conduct, he also has the authority to investigate complaints and recommend disciplinary sanctions to its members, with the city’s Code of Conduct bylaw, which was approved in April, serving as his guidebook.
“Remember, it’s mayor and council that mete out the sanctions,” Harding told the Now-Leader on Tuesday, “I only make recommendations. I don’t have jurisdiction to imposed sanctions, they do, on my recommendations. But my goal is to be very much positive and proactive, and to push the advisory and educational aspects of this office.”
Harding is a partner with Young Anderson, specializing in local government law, which he has practised for 26 years. “Our clients are municipalities all over B.C. We act for governments anywhere from villages up to big cities.” He will continue to practice law with his firm while also wearing his new hat as an independent officer.
Mayor Doug McCallum, in a written statement city hall issued Tuesday, said Harding’s “comprehensive experience in municipal law, advising elected officials on responsible conduct, and conflict resolution and his high standing among his peers makes him the right person to fill this important role at the City of Surrey.”
Harding admitted Tuesday he doesn’t yet have a “tremendous amount” of knowledge about Surrey.
“I know what I read in the papers,” he said.
“I’m not invested in the details of Surrey now and I think that’s actually helpful and beneficial because I do come, I think, to Surrey with a bit of objectivity and I don’t have a lot of deep relationships or historic relationships with a lot of the people in Surrey so I come, I think, with my reputation.
“It give me a sense of, I hope anyway, some objectivity coming into Surrey to help, to be of assistance.”
Speaking of relationships, news and social media reports concerning the mysterious nature of the relationship between Surrey’s mayor and Councillor Allison Patton, which neither have publicly addressed, has not been lost on him.
“I’ve read those things in the paper too,” Harding said. “I’m aware of those things but I don’t know what role if any I would be playing in that, I think time will tell when it comes to that stuff.
“Remember, I was advised only yesterday that I was appointed to this role,” he told the Now-Leader on Tuesday, “so I’m going to need some time to get familiar with things. But my aim is to get familiar pretty quickly, to get up to speed on matters. We’ll see what’s engaged by the process, the Code of Conduct bylaws there. It puts a formal process in place and will see what that process, we’ll see how it’s triggered, and what it leads to. I don’t think I can comment in any detail on that.”
Harding said the key, in his new role, is “education, education, and more education” with the Code of Conduct bylaw setting out the “overarching” duties of the Ethics Commissioner.
“It’s all about providing to elected officials the opportunity to be advised and assisted on understanding that role, understanding what their roles require of them,” Harding said. “One of the things in this particular Code of Conduct bylaw that I think is really bold by the city is offering the elected officials the opportunity to seek guidance from the Ethics Commissioner on conflict of interest concerns.”
His advisory role, he said, is to help council members “stay out of a problem before they get into a problem.
“I hope that role will be well utilized.”
Asked what her first question for Harding might be, Councillor Linda Annis replied, “My question is, sort of motherhood in a way, is how can he help the council in Surrey become the benchmark for local politics in our province?
“I think there’s a real opportunity there because our council has been quite fractious,” Annis said. “The good news is, though, on the notion of getting an Ethics Commissioner, and on his appointment, we were unanimous. So I think we’re starting on the right foot and I’d like to see what he can do to help us become a benchmark for local politics.”