Coquitlam ‘very well justified’ in not calling a byelection to fill vacant seat, says city staffer

It’s like the city council version of Succession.

Last September, Bonita Zarrillo was elected to federal office, leaving behind a vacant seat on Coquitlam council that has since become the subject of a tug-of-war between the municipality, the province, and two residents demanding a byelection.

Following Monday’s council meeting, that vacant seat might also become the subject of a court case as council unanimously voted to appoint external legal counsel to deal with a legal challenge over the byelection. Council voted without discussion.

Typically, a municipality is obligated to call a byelection following a vacancy as soon as is reasonably possible. However, citing high costs, low voter interest and fundraising challenges faced by prospective candidates who would conceivably go through two elections in one year, Coquitlam council instead lobbied the province to cancel the byelection requirement.

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Eager to see the empty seat filled, resident Neal Nicholson responded by serving Coquitlam and its mayor and council with a notice of pending litigation in February.

“It’s black-letter law,” said Nicholson, himself a former councillor who won his seat in a byelection.

Nicholson said the legal action was solely intended to spur the municipality to call a byelection.

“I have no desire to go to court and rake muck,” he said. “I would like them to go, ‘Holy cow, these guys are serious.’”

In correspondence with the province, city staff cited “special circumstances” including the pandemic, November’s extreme rain, supply chain impacts, December’s extreme cold, and the fact the city’s staffing resources were “already oversubscribed” as reasons not to hold the byelection.

‘Special circumstances’

In November 2021, the city got a message from the provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs stating: “Absent any special circumstances, there is no mechanism . . . to exempt the city holding a byelection.”

Coquitlam staff disagreed, subsequently obtaining a written legal opinion supporting the city’s position.

Few swing votes

Mayor Richard Stewart has since urged the province to consider that, realistically, Coquitlam council tends to agree on most issues.

“. . . over the last three years, most council votes have been unanimous or nearly unanimous. There have been few, if any, matters where a single swing vote would make a difference,” he wrote.

Speaking to council on Monday, city manager Peter Steblin noted the possibility of going to court. Steblin also expressed disappointment in what he called the province’s “overly rigid” system of rules.

“The course that we are pursuing is very well justified,” Steblin told council.

The next municipal election is set for October 15.

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