Free Palestine activist frequently disrupted the council meeting on Tuesday, April 9. Screenshot from Facebook videoPatrick Penner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Not only will Port Moody not be taking any position on the conflict in Gaza, its corporate policy could be amended to restrict council’s ability to wade into future non-jurisdictional items. 

A chaotic meeting on Tuesday, April 9, erupted numerous times as Free Palestine activists disrupted proceedings with chants, angered by council’s flip-flopping on the issue.

Mayor Meghan Lahti had to call a recess in order to regain control of council chambers at one point, and cut the second public input period short due to an uncooperative speaker.

“We shouldn’t be weighing in on this issue. It is fraught with nuances that we are not in any way equipped to deal with, and that was evident here tonight,” Lahti said. “Nothing good will come from us wading into this any further.”

Following a delegation by the Free Palestine Tri-Cities group on March 26, council voted to send a letter to the prime minister supporting several of the federal government’s official positions, including calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

But two days later, an emergency special meeting was called and council reversed its decision by a vote of 4-3.

Several council members alleged they, and members of the public, had been subject to harassment by supporters of the delegation, and some city committee members had resigned over the proposed letter.

At the end of the emergency meeting, Lahti introduced a new motion: calling for safe spaces to be created in order to foster dialogue between residents affected by the conflict; and for the federal government to work towards a permanent peace solution.

But members of the public rebuked council for nearly an hour during the input on Tuesday, either maddened by council’s reversal, or the decision to further wade into an international issue.

Alain Quinto, an organizer with Free Palestine Tri-Cities, said his group does not condone the online comments, but added the situation did not warrant council’s move to rescind its motion.

He claimed council caved to “Zionist pressure,” arguing some councillors used the online comments of a few to label their entire organization as an anti-Semitic hate group. He demanded an apology for his members.

“It’s an all too familiar playbook,” Quinto said. “It’s all quite shameful and embarrassing.”

Numerous Jewish residents also told council they feel increasingly unsafe in the community.

Rabbi Mottel Gurevitz of Chabad Jewish Centre of The Tri-Cities said council had opened a “door to division, polarization and strife.”

He said residents choose to live in Port Moody for its reputation as a peaceful and ethnically diverse community, where people coexist harmoniously.

“Two weeks ago, the city council veered from its mandate,” Gurevitz said. “Now it’s time to do the right thing, to close that door, to deny this motion, and future motions.”

Lahti withdrew her motion almost immediately following the heated public input period. She said council had learned a “valuable lesson” about weighing into issues beyond its jurisdiction.

In fact, a new motion may prevent council from getting into similar entanglements going forward.

Couns. Kyla Knowles and Callan Morrison – the two councillors who said they were subjected to online abuse – proposed staff report back on amending the policy relating to non-jurisdictional issues.

Knowles said they want these items to be “depoliticized,” and jurisdictional decisions should be yielded to staff.

She estimated that at least 50 hours of council and staff time, along with the majority of three council meetings, were devoted to the issue, instead of numerous other pressing municipal priorities.

“What is our time worth? Because I’ve heard clearly from our constituents that this is not how they want us to spend our time and their tax dollars,” Knowles said. “Much of the division caused by recent events could and should be avoided.”

Coun. Diana Dilworth agreed council needs to look at best management practices to avoid future missteps, adding they received well over 100 emails overwhelmingly against council’s motion.

The mayor said she was not against potential changes to the city’s non-jurisdictional policy, but noted a policy is already in place. “We just have to stick to it, folks,” Lahti said.

The motion passed by a 4-3 vote, with Couns. Samantha Agtarap, Amy Lubik, Haven Lurbiecki voting against.

Not only would revising the policy add to staff’s workload, but council frequently weighs in on non-jurisdictional matters, which the Canadian Charter permits, according to Agtarap.

She noted the previous council advocated for sanctions against Russia only five days after its invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Lubik said she thought municipalities have a duty to hear from their constituencies, and advocate on their behalf, including on humanitarian issues.

“We are the level of governance closest to the people,” she said. “One of the most important pieces of our job is to help people feel heard.”

Lurbiecki agreed, arguing it was “outrageous” to have unelected staff decide which public voices council hears from.

Two subsequent motions introduced by Lurbiecki both failed to pass.

The first essentially reworded the council’s initial declaration, supporting the federal government official foreign policy position regarding the Israeli campaign in Gaza; the second requested council apologize for the way it rescinded the original motion.

Lurbiecki said the only thing controversial about that motion was how it was reversed in an emergency meeting over online comments.

“Everything that led up to us being here tonight should not have happened. I feel this has been an absolute mess,” Lurbiecki said. 

Lubik also said there was nothing wrong with the original motion, stating it was in line with federal government position, and international observers.

She apologized to residents, on all sides of the issue, who had been hurt by the municipal fiasco.

“I think that we’ve done more harm than good here,” Lubik said. 

Lahti said the alleged social media harassment only expedited the emergency meeting, stating the real reason it had to be called was that several councillors wanted to change their vote.

Morrison said he thought both motions were attempting to appease the Free Palestine delegation in the wake of the council’s reversal.

He said councillors can advocate on international issues on their own time, but not when speaking on behalf of the municipality.

“There’s only going to be losers on these motions tonight. One group, no matter what, will feel like we haven’t done our jobs,” Morrison said.

Morrison scoffed at the idea council should apologize to anyone involved with delegation, arguing the delegation should be apologizing for harassing councillors, residents, and disrupting a public meeting. “I will not tolerate it,” he said.

By Patrick Penner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 11, 2024 at 12:54

This item reprinted with permission from   Tri-Cities Dispatch   Coquitlam, British Columbia

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