A government order allowing municipal councils to bar the public from attending open council meetings went beyond ministerial authority, the B.C. Ombudsperson has found.
Jay Chalke, B.C.’s Ombudsperson, has released an investigative report stating that Mike Farnworth, minister of public safety and solicitor general did not have the authority to issue two ministerial orders, that suspended or amended existing legislation.
The report called Extraordinary Times, Extraordinary Measures: Two Ministerial orders made under the Emergency Act in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, found that Ministerial Order 139 and 098 were illegal.
M139 has been the focus of Express stories recently, with Vanderhoof council citing that order as the reason for not allowing members of the public or media to attend or watch council meetings since the pandemic began in March.
M139 was rescinded last week and was replaced by a newer order after the Ombudsperson shared his draft report with the government.
Even though the new local government order is an improvement, Chalke said it still suspends or amends B.C. statutes which is the main issue the Ombudsperson had found in the original order (M139).
During a provincial emergency, the solicitor general has extraordinary powers, and Chalke said his office investigated “whether those extra powers include the ability for the minister to suspend or temporarily amend B.C. statutes and we concluded the minister does not have that authority, even in an emergency.”
Chalke said he recognizes that speed is important in responding to the pandemic; however, “while the intent and even the content of these orders may be worthy, that is not enough.”
“Every exercise of public authority in a democratic system must find its source in law,” Chalke stated in a June 22 press release.
Vanderhoof district council has said it will consider electronic broadcasts of open meetings, or other options, but that those could take weeks to implement.