City Charters Are The Answer To Sean Chu
Problems with an elected candidate show the need for more power at the municipal level
Councillor Sean Chu will not resign and make the problem that he creates for powerful people in Alberta go away. As a result, we should expect the pressure to remove Chu from public office to intensify, and to concentrate not on Calgary’s council but instead on the provincial United Conservative Party government, says Andrew McIntyre, former senior policy advisor for former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
As McIntyre says of the province, “They’re holding the hot potato.”
Chu’s refusal to resign should first be put in context. It has come to light (through the excellent reporting of Meghan Grant at CBC Calgary) Chu admitted to Calgary police that, in the 1990s while aged 34 and working as a cop, he had sexual interactions with a 16-year-old girl, including one while wearing his uniform. Chu was eventually convicted on one count of discreditable conduct under the Police Act. Though these events occurred in the 1990s and though Chu’s ultimate punishment was only a letter of reprimand from Calgary Police that expired on his record in 2008, it’s clear the victim sees the events differently. Indeed, the victim has brought forward an application to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, and a publication ban on details of this application expired on October 15 — three days before the municipal vote. That’s when the Chu news hit and hit big. Grant reported that, “According to a source with direct knowledge of the incident, a firearm was involved in the 1997 incident which the victim described as a sexual assault” (our emphasis).
Chu won his Ward 4 council seat by just 100 votes (for an interesting look at the effect news of his actions as a cop had on the vote, check out this tweet from political scientist Jack Lucas, which compares advance poll resultrs versus election-day polls, after Chu’s past was public). He was sworn in as a member of Calgary’s council Monday. Newly-elected Mayor Jyoti Gondek refused to administer Chu the oath of office. Gondek and most members of Calgary’s council have called on Chu to resign but their power to do much beyond freezing Chu out socially and symbolically is extremely limited.
Chu’s position? “I was duly elected by the people of Ward 4 and I intend to stay in this position to serve the people of Ward 4,” he told a Calgary Herald reporter.
This is the point that McIntyre focuses on and why he’s convinced the province will be left looking for ways to solve the problem. Many Albertans are demanding action on this and the longer the situation is left as is the more public trust in institutions is weakened.
What of the Recall Act, though? Several people, including me, have pondered what effect this Act could have in the Chu situation. The Recall Act is a new law the UCP government created to allow citizen to recall elected officials. What’s unique to Canadian jurisdictions with recall legislation is that when this becomes law (Premier Jason Kenney told reporters on Monday to expect this before 2022), Alberta’s Act will apply to municipal officials, too. But as McIntyre pointed out to Rage, even if the Act were put into force, tomorrow, it has an 18-month period before it can be applied to elections. So, though the Act’s threshold, which requires 40 per cent of eligible voters to sign a petition to recall a politician, seems highly possible in the Chu case, it isn’t something that applies here.
What can be done, then? Recently, Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver released a statement after consulting with non-partisan legal staff about the Chu situation. “Contrary to what some have suggested, the Minister of Municipal Affairs cannot simply arbitrarily ‘fire’ an elected municipal official,” McIver said, in the statement. He went on to explain that the Municipal Government Act (MGA) provides tools for the minister to Act on allegations of wrongdoing for a municipal official while in office. That doesn’t apply in Chu’s case.
So, McIver’s statement suggests the UCP government doesn’t feel it can act.
But McIntyre says the province could use a different approach than the MGA.
“They could create a charter authority that would allow cities to have a greater range of potential sanctions within their own code of conduct,” he says. “The city would need to go through its own process, but it would allow cities to create norms that would allow it to address scenarios like this.”
In short, if given greater powers for code of conduct, Calgary’s council could pass a rule that would apply to Chu’s specific case and impose meaningful sanctions on him that could push him to resign.
As McIntyre notes, the city charters (which I’ve written about extensively and which the UCP has severely weakened since coming to power) allow the province to override any aspect of the MGA.
Further, McIntyre says, the province is about to start a new sitting of the legislature. “They can introduce any changes to whatever laws they like. Sometimes they act like their hands are tied. That’s a cop out.”
Chu is politically toxic and voters understand that council has little power in Calgary to change the situation. The hot potato is in the province’s hands.
“Right now, they’re sitting with it,” McIntyre says.
Photo: Sean Chu campaign website