Supreme Court judge declares April 24 Fire Board election, "of no effect" and orders new election for August 21, 2019

Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

Tuesday, July 2 2019

A judge with the BC Supreme Court has granted the order sought by petitioners to declare the April 24, 2019, election of the Gabriola Fire Protection Improvement District “of no effect.”

BC Supreme Court Justice Murray B. Blok made the decision in the Nanaimo Courthouse on July 2, 2019.

This legally nullifies the election held during the Annual General Meeting of the Fire District.

Petitioners Drew Stanliand, April Vannini and Ivan Bulic were present in the courtroom with their representative, Tim Leadem Q.C., a retired member of the Bar of BC and Gabriola resident, who acted on a pro bono basis.

Lawyer Jennifer Millbank represented the Fire District in court. No one from the GFPID Board or Gabriola Fire Department was in attendance. 

A new election has been ordered by the court to be held on August 21, 2019, as requested by the Fire District. In ordering the new election, the judge ordered the District to also provide property owners with the ability to vote by way of absentee ballots, citing that with it being an election during a summer month, owners may not be on island to take part in the election in person.

The August 21 date was requested by the Fire Board, and the suggestion and subsequent order for absentee ballots came from Justice Blok.

Given that the current election bylaws for the Fire Board allow for nominations from the floor on the night of elections, it is unclear what mechanism may be used for the absentee ballots. Inquiries to the Fire Board and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs asking for clarity were unanswered at press time.

The judge was requested by the petitioners’ representative to also make a ruling on whether Paul Giffin and Paul Champion (who had been elected April 24) could continue as elected trustees if the April 24 election is of no effect.

The judge said that the decision was not before him, and that he would not be making a decision on that matter.

On July 5, Paula Mallinson, Corporate Officer for the Fire District, confirmed to the Sounder that the July 10 Board meeting would be cancelled as the Board would not have quorum. (Quorum for the board of seven trustees is four.) Mallinson confirmed that the reason for this is there are now two trustee positions vacant until the August 21 election, and two of the other five trustees would not be able to make the July 10 meeting.

The Supreme Court hearing was the result of a petition filed by three Gabriola residents and property owners, Drew Staniland, Ivan Bulic and April Vannini, who said they were so appalled by the manner in which the April 24 election was conducted, that they took the only remedy available to them under the BC Local Government Act: to appeal to the Supreme Court in the form of a legal petition.

Bulic said, “We did not undertake this court action lightly.

“In fact, before filing any action, we tried to negotiate with the (then) chairperson of the Fire Board to find a way of avoiding going to court....in the end, the Fire Board decided not to organize a new election and we were forced to go the legal route.” 

Staniland, Bulic and Vannini say they then immersed themselves in the complex process of preparing a Supreme Court action. This included a crash course in the Local Government Act, the GFPID bylaws, and the BC Supreme Court rules which included the intricate legal procedures of preparing and filing affidavits and evidence. 

The petitioners were helped by a number of equally concerned individuals on Gabriola who submitted affidavits in support of their petition.  

Staniland said, “To be clear, the Gabriola Fire Department and the Fire Protection Board of Trustees are two separate entities. The Fire Protection Board is a statutory body governed by provincial legislation.

“They can raise and spend taxes, expropriate property and hire and fire staff. The only legal input we as taxpayers have, is when we elect the trustees, so it is crucial that Fire Board elections are fair, open, democratic and follow the rules set out by the Provincial Government. That did not happen at their April 24 election.”

Vannini said, “The Fire Department is responsible for providing an essential emergency service.

“The Board of Trustees is there to serve the public trust, that is, to oversee how tax dollars are spent on this essential service as well as to provide an interface with the public regarding this service. It is crucial that there is a culture of fairness and transparency within the Gabriola Fire District Board of Trustees as well as within the entire department.”

The petitioners said their hope is that new elections will be the first step in renewing public confidence in the Gabriola Fire Board Trustees. 

At no point in the process have the petitioners suggested they have lost confidence in the Fire Department firefighters.

Vannini said, “We have the utmost respect and appreciation for the work and commitment of the members of the Gabriola Fire Department. 

“That is why we want to see that the processes and procedures as outlined in GFPID bylaws, Letters Patent, Local Government Act, Elections Act, and Improvement District Manual (2006) are adopted by the Board of Trustees in undertaking their immense responsibilities in public office and are above reproach. 

“We are confident that this exercise in democracy will go a long way towards strengthening the confidence that Gabriolans have in their elected Fire Board.”

As part of the July 2 judgment, Staniland, Bulic and Vannini were entitled to seek costs from the Gabriola Fire Board.

 Staniland, Bulic and Vannini agreed to not collect costs and damages, as that would simply come out of taxes paid by Gabriola residents; they will cover the expenses of their court action as a public benefit.