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New West councillor 'in the dark' about mayor’s trip to Dubai

New Westminster’s attendance at COP28 conference in Dubai raises many questions for a councillor
Coun. Daniel Fontaine, left, has voiced concerns about Mayor Patrick Johnstone's work trip to Dubai.

A New Westminster city councillor has a “plethora of questions” about Mayor Patrick Johnstone’s trip to an environmental conference in Dubai.

Johnstone and Leya Behra, the city’s manager of climate action, attended the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (known as COP28) in Dubai in the first week of December 2023. A staff report about “outcomes” from attending COP28 was included in Monday’s council agenda.

According to staff, the City of New Westminster was invited to participate in the historic, first-ever Local Climate Action Summit that was part of the conference. The report described it as being a global summit of local leaders, which had been convened and coordinated by international organizations focused on local climate action.

“Cities are on the frontlines of climate change, and are not only able to build and design climate-resilient futures, with the understanding of local needs, but are also able to work directly with citizens to collaborate, inspire and accelerate climate mitigation and adaptation,” said the report. “This world stage raises the voices of cities to strengthen multilevel dialogue and ensure that national and international action is addressing local needs experienced on the ground in cities.”

According to the report, presentations, ministerial briefings, demonstrations, solutions-focused workshops, discussions on successes and challenges relating to implementing climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience strategies, and interactions with youth, industry, research organizations and city leaders from across the world “open the door to ongoing learning” as the City of New Westminster works to implement climate action plans.

The next steps for the city will be to incorporate the learnings from the conference into the delivery of New Westminster’s climate action team’s work plan.

The staff report regarding the COP28 conference was included in the “information reports” section of the Jan. 8 city council agenda. Items on this section of the agenda are not discussed at that meeting, but can be “pulled” for discussion at the next council meeting.

At Monday night’s meeting, Coun. Daniel Fontaine asked that council move the report out of the information report section and on to the main agenda so it could be discussed that evening. He said it’s “really critical” that it not just be an information report, given the amount of discussion the issue has created in the community and in the media for the last week or so.

If the item remains as an information report on the agenda, Fontaine said the public will be “in the dark” about details of the trip for a couple more weeks. He said he has many questions about the trip, including who funded the trip for city officials and how it was approved.

“I could go on and on and on about those types of questions about the recent trip of the mayor to Dubai,” he said.

According to the staff report, attendance at the conference was paid for by a third-party organization, and all local government staff in attendance were provided with this same sponsorship.

“This report tonight was prepared by staff. It merely speaks to the staff component of the trip, a trip paid by a third-party organization, to Dubai,” Fontaine said. “It does not speak to anything pertaining to how the mayor managed this particular affair, the financial cost of it, did the mayor go business class. It doesn’t speak to any financial implications, it’s merely speaking to the staff component. So we are still waiting at this stage for an actual report from the mayor.”

Council votes

In a 4-2 vote, council voted against moving the report out of the “information reports” part of the agenda so it could be discussed.

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa noted the mayor and the staff person who wrote the report weren’t at the Jan. 8 meeting to respond to questions.

“I don’t think we will be getting answers because the people are not in the room who can provide answers. So I won’t be supporting it,” she said.

Coun. Tasha Henderson said the report is solely an information report item and does not include any recommendations for council.

“I think it’s important that the two people who attended this conference would be in attendance to answer questions,” she said. “It’s pretty detailed and laid out in the report about how it came to be.”

Fontaine said council owes it to the public and to the media to discuss the report. (At least one news outlet had TV cameras in council chambers at Monday’s meeting.)

“There are a plethora of questions that will remain unanswered if this is simply buried at the bottom of an information report,” he said.

Johnstone was on vacation and wasn’t present at Monday’s meeting.

(The Record reached out to Johnstone, who stated his vacation had been planned months ago and flights were booked on Oct. 3. He was away from Dec. 21 to Jan. 10.)

At Monday's meeting, acting mayor Jaimie McEvoy said Johnstone has blogged extensively about his attendance at the conference.

“The mayor, the person who could answer these questions, is not actually present,” McEvoy said Monday night. “And that was noted the moment that this motion was made in this chamber.”

New West Progressives councillors Fontaine and Minhas supported amending the agenda, while McEvoy, Nakagawa, Henderson and Coun. Ruby Campbell were opposed.

Council, however, unanimously supported another motion put forward by Fontaine.

Fontaine expressed concern that he had submitted a notice of motion to staff on Dec. 27 regarding the mayor’s trip to Dubai, so it could be included on the Jan. 8 agenda. He said it wasn’t included on the agenda because he had been given the incorrect date for submitting motions to city hall for inclusion on the agenda.

Staff confirmed there was a clerical error and apologized for providing Fontaine with the incorrect date.

In response to that clerical error, Fontaine put forward a motion asking that the mayor provide a report to council pertaining to his recent business trip to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It asks that the report include:

  • A detailed breakdown of the financial costs pertaining to the trip, including meals, flights, hotel accommodations, ground transportation.
  • A detailed summary of what the third-party funder offered the mayor’s office, by way of free trips to Dubai for himself, members of his family or city staff
  • A day-by-day itinerary of all meetings and events attended by the mayor while in Dubai.
  • The estimated carbon footprint of attending the Dubai conference in person, rather than virtually.
  • A summary of the direct benefits to the City of New Westminster of the mayor’s delegation to Dubai.

The motion also requests that the city’s new ethics commissioner be requested to conduct a workshop with council regarding the Community Charter, with a particular emphasis on section 105, which pertains to restrictions imposed on municipal officials regarding the acceptance of gifts.

Council unanimously supported the motion, which will included on the agenda at council’s next meeting, which is on Jan. 22.