This week Nelson’s city council and the Nelson police board met, face to face, for the first time in at least ten years.
The purpose of the meeting, according to Mayor Deb Kozak, was for the two groups to know and understand each other better, because they have recently come into conflict over the police board’s proposed 2015 budget.
In the fall, the police asked city council for increased funding to hire two more police officers and an administrative person, but in the spring at its budget setting sessions, council refused. The police board then formally referred the matter to the director of police services at the provincial Ministry of Justice for a decision.
Currently the director is investigating, has made no decision, and does not want to discuss it with the media.
There are twelve cities in BC that have their own police forces, governed by police boards appointed by the province but with one member appointed by the municipal council. The police boards are intended to provide independent civilian oversight of police operations.
Mayor Deb Kozak is the chair of Nelson’s police board. She has no choice in this: the BC Police Act requires the mayor to take that job, unlike in any other province. This potentially puts any BC mayor in an awkward division of loyalties if the two groups disagree.
Shortly after assuming office last fall, Kozak said she intended to get the two groups talking to one another. That happened at this week’s meeting, which was closed to the media and the public, and conducted by a professional facilitator.
“These meetings should have been happening all along,” says Kozak. “They should happen several times over the course of a year. Other communities do that. And the director of police services has advised us to do that.”
Why should the two boards meet, other than to discuss the annual budget?
“What we identified,” said Kozak, “is that policing is not an isolated community service. Policing must be integrated into the other services that the community provides. That is the trend. It does not make sense for us to ramp up one service without understanding what other services are available and what they are able to provide or should provide.
“Many of the things the police are dealing with are social issues. Council comes from the unique perspective of community — the broad issues are the purview of council. It is up to council to make sure that the community is healthy and safe and all facets are working properly. And the police board focuses on policing. For us to be working in cooperation with each other makes sense.”
Kozak said the two boards made a confidentiality agreement at the beginning of the meeting, agreeing that only Kozak would speak to the media about the meeting. She said this came about not because there was anything top secret, but rather because the two groups felt they needed to feel confident that they could speak openly and honestly. Kozak said the agreement applied only to that meeting, and not necessarily to future meetings.
Kozak said no decisions were made at the meeting and that the budget issue was not directly discussed.
“I think it was necessary as a starting point,” she said, “for both groups to understand each other. We took time to let each member around the table talk about where they were at, to say what they think and what they need, what information they need and don’t have. So we were setting the baseline.”
The complexity of the structure of the relationship between city council and the police board is not limited to the mayor being the chair of both.
City council decides which police force to use: whether to have its own police force or contract with the RCMP. If the city decides to form its own municipal police force, the city sets and provides the police budget.
The board is officially the employer of police staff but the city pays them and usually the city manager leads negotiations with the police union. Much of the employer responsibility — for example, hiring and firing, and direct supervision of staff — is delegated to the police chief.
According to the BC Police Board handbook, a police board’s job is to employ staff, set general policy and direction, oversee finances, deal with complaints or discipline, and to appoint and evaluate the police chief.
The members of the Nelson Police Board are, in addition to Kozak, Barb Henry, Bill Reid, Hilda Taylor, Robert Goertz, and Roger Higgins.
UPDATE: This article was updated on April 17 by adding the paragraph that begins, “Kozak said the two boards made a confidentiality agreement…..”