Violation of mail ballot secrecy alleged in May 2021 municipal by-election

May 01, 2022 – An alleged violation of mail-in ballot secrecy in the May 15, 2021 municipal by-election has been reported to the RCMP.

The election was held to fill a seat on the Qualicum Beach Council left vacant when former councillor Adam Walker was elected as the area’s Member of the Legislative Assembly in the last provincial election. Anne Skipsey was elected to Qualicum Beach Council in the by-election.

According to the reported allegation, mail-in ballot secrecy was compromised by the Chief Election Officer, Heather Svensen.

The report alleges Ms. Svensen was observed being handed a mail-in ballot package that had been delivered in person to the polling station on Election Day. It is alleged that Ms. Svensen personally opened each successive envelope contained inside that mail ballot package, after which she removed the ballot and inserted the ballot into the vote tabulation machine.

Mail-in voting packages are specifically designed to keep the identity of the voter separate from the voter’s choice of candidate in order to ensure the secrecy of a person’s vote. The secrecy of a person’s ballot choice can only be achieved if the mail-in ballot envelopes in each voter package are opened by different people. The mail ballot package is designed to ensure the voter’s identity and their ballot selection are kept separate in sealed envelopes. In no instance should any election worker be allowed to open all of the envelopes in a mail-in ballot package.

Unlike on election night, when ballots can be counted straight out of the box, mail-in ballots are sealed in several layers of security. Photo courtesy of Elections BC.

Ms. Svensen is also the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer and the Corporate Administrator for the Town of Qualicum Beach. There is no suggestion that the May 15, 2021 by-election results were affected by the alleged violation.

Collapse of municipal government oversight creates an opportunity for corruption and breeds mistrust

This alleged mail-in ballot secrecy violation was brought to the attention of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, Elections BC and the B.C. Solicitor General, all of whom declined any role in determining whether a violation had occurred.

The Deputy Minister of Municipal Affairs, Okenge Yuma Morisho, wrote, “the provincial government does not have a role in reviewing and reversing decisions or actions taken by local governments… Alleged election offences committed under the Local Government Act are investigated by the local law enforcement and it is up to the police to make a recommendation to the Crown if it appears that an election offence has been committed and should be prosecuted through the courts.”

One obvious conflict of interest inherent in this policy is that our police services ostensibly report to the Town of Qualicum Beach. The lack of accountability and transparency and independent oversight in municipal government is a growing concern in many B.C. municipalities. Surrey’s mayor, currently charged with a criminal offense, recently instituted a ban on all ethics investigations until after the next B.C. municipal elections are held in the fall of 2022.

Horgan government canned Local Government Auditor General office

The current British Columbia government seems to have taken a step back from the province’s former progressive oversight of municipal government operations.

In February 2020, Selina Robinson, BC’s then Minister of Municipal Affairs, announced that she planned to shut down the office of the Auditor General for Local Government (AGLG). Their review of the ill-fated Johnson Street Bridge project, as requested by the City of Victoria in 2018, was to be the last formal performance audit conducted by the AGLG team. It didn’t get done.

Gordon Ruth, Auditor General for Local Government, ended his term in October 2020. In a terse one-sentence News Release issued a week before Christmas 2020, acting AGLG Mike Furey announced that “Due to impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic the Auditor General for Local Government will not be completing the capital project management performance audit of the City of Victoria’s Johnson Street Bridge replacement project.”

“…the provincial government does not have a role in reviewing and reversing decisions or actions taken by local governments…”

Okenge Yuma Morisho,
Deputy Minister of B.C. Municipal Affairs

On March 31, 2021 the AGLG’s lights were turned off and the office closed.

With that, a tiny but useful thread of municipal accountability and performance improvement vaporized. More importantly, the opportunity was lost for municipal governments to learn from their misadventures, guided by the post-project tutelage of an independent AGLG team whose function was not to punish the guilty but to help reduce the risk of repeated future blunders.

The denizens of the City of Victoria continue to ask: What exactly were the hard-earned lessons learned  from the painful blue bridge project? How will those learnings be put to good use when the City next embarks on a major capital project?

Qualicum Beach fiasco remains unexplained

Closer to home, taxpayers in Qualicum Beach rightfully ask similar questions about the Memorial Ave. / Hwy 19A roundabout project. By way of comparison, this questionable Qualicum Beach project to replace a stop sign was, per capita, at least TWICE as expensive as Victoria’s Johnson Street replacement bridge.

Yet, in a complete absence of accountability, we have not even been told accurately and completely: What did the roundabout cost? Has John Marsh, Director of Finance, ever produced a fulsome accounting? Nope. Did ex-CAO Daniel Sailland come clean? Any post-mortem analysis of why the costs and schedule ballooned? Nope.

It is not an exaggeration to conclude that municipal governments are the least transparent and the least accountable of all levels of government in the country.

Here in BC, we know of only one municipal government that takes accountability seriously – the City of Vancouver. In November 2020, Vancouver’s Council enacted an Auditor General By-Law. Mike Macdonell was appointed as the City of Vancouver’s inaugural Auditor General for a seven-year term commencing September 7, 2021.

Why does the Horgan government give every other municipality a pass?

The fundamental principles of good government — competence, transparency and accountability — badly need improved oversight in many communities. The culture in Qualicum Beach Town Hall of providing the absolute minimum statutory information continues to dismay residents and breeds mistrust.

Beginning May 16, 2022, our new CAO Lou Varela assumes responsibility for management of the financial and operational matters of the Town. We are optimistic that she will bend the arc of accountability and good governance in a more positive direction.