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Questions swirl over New West mayor’s trip to UN conference in Dubai

Costs covered by C40 Cities group, which New Westminster is not a member of
New Westminster Mayor Patrick Johnstone during his junket to the UN COP 28 climate change conference in Dubai

A New Westminster city councillor wants Mayor Patrick Johnstone to clear the air about his junket to the United Nations climate change conference in Dubai.

Coun. Daniel Fontaine of the New West Progressives said he found out that Johnstone was away via the latter’s Dec. 1-5 Intagram photos.

Fontaine later learned from a reporter that New Westminster climate action manager Leya Behra also travelled to the United Arab Emirates for the 28th global climate change conference.

“The council should have had the opportunity to ask before the mayor got on the 747 and headed to Dubai, not afterwards,” Fontaine said.

Fontaine was told in a Dec. 18 email by acting chief administrative officer Lisa Leblanc that the costs of Johnstone and Behra’s trips were covered by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group Inc. and that “an estimate of the total costs was not provided to or approved by the department, as all other costs have been managed solely through the mayor’s office, and ultimately covered by the funders.”  

C40 describes itself as a “global network of nearly 100 mayors of the world’s leading cities that are united in action to confront the climate crisis.”

New Westminster is not a C40 member.

Vancouver is, but Mayor Ken Sim did not travel to Dubai.

Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor and media executive, is president of the C40 board. Organization funders include international corporations with a presence in Canada, such as FedEx, Google, Ikea and Novo Nordisk.

Johnstone did not respond to interview requests.

Fontaine said he and New Westminster Coun. Paul Minhas were unsuccessful in scheduling a face-to-face meeting with  Johnstone to get answers about the trip, so they went public on Wednesday.

"We’re into early January, we still don't know what the costs were. We don't know what the actual outcomes were. We don't know who it was that actually initiated the offer of the trip,” Fontaine said. "Are they lobbyists? Are they not? Who are they? Are they based in Canada and the U.S.? Based in British Columbia? We have no answers to any of those questions.”

Fontaine said councillors generally travel to Union of B.C. Municipalities and Federation of Canadian Municipalities meetings, but Johnstone’s extraordinary trip to Dubai should have gone through an approval process at an open council meeting.

The Community Charter, the provincial law that regulates municipal governments, prohibits a member of a council from accepting, directly or indirectly, any gift or personal benefit.

The rule does not apply to “a gift or personal benefit that is received as an incident of the protocol or social obligations that normally accompany the responsibilities of office.”

But anything more than $250 must be disclosed to the appropriate city hall official “as soon as reasonably practicable.”

A person who contravenes the relevant Community Charter section is disqualified from holding office “unless the contravention was done inadvertently or because of an error in judgment made in good faith.”

Johnstone, elected in 2022 as leader of the NDP-aligned Community First New West party, published a three-part diary of his trip on his blog.

The Dec. 28 entry said that he had received an email invitation “from out of the blue” from C40 and ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability to attend the local climate action summit at COP 28.

“It was so out of the blue that I joked to my [executive assistant] about it – could you imagine going to Dubai? – and dismissed the invitation pretty quickly,” Johnstone wrote.

That was followed by a webinar invitation in which Johnstone learned that New Westminster was among 100 other local governments to be sponsored by C40.

“I started conversations with city staff that led us to decide it was a good opportunity for the city, and something we should participate in,” Johnstone wrote.

Johnstone spent two terms as a city councillor from 2014 to 2022. He had previously worked as a contaminated sites specialist for the City of Richmond, City of Vancouver, the Illinois State Geological Survey and SNC-Lavalin.