Chilliwack school board trustee Barry Neufeld at the board’s last meeting before the Oct. 20, 2018 election. (Paul Henderson/ The Progress file)

Chilliwack school board trustee Barry Neufeld at the board’s last meeting before the Oct. 20, 2018 election. (Paul Henderson/ The Progress file)

BC Supreme Court dismisses Chilliwack resident’s petition to remove Barry Neufeld from office

Peter Lang said Neufeld violated the School Act by disclosing in camera meeting information

A Chilliwack resident’s petition to have school board trustee Barry Neufeld removed from office has been dismissed by the B.C. Supreme Court.

Two Vancouver lawyers filed the petition in February 2021 asking the court to not only remove Neufeld from office, but to also disqualify him from standing as a candidate for election in the future.

The petition, filed on behalf of local resident Peter Lang, relied on the finding of the Chilliwack School Board that Neufeld violated the conflict of interest rules in the School Act when he disclosed information from an in-camera meeting of the board on Oct. 5, 2020.

READ MORE: Chilliwack resident files lawsuit asking BC Supreme Court to remove Barry Neufeld from office

“The in camera conversation in question involved discussion of a Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) complaint filed against Neufeld for his public statements about the anti-bullying SOGI 123 program that created an unsafe work environment for CUPE members and other Board employees,” according to Vancouver lawyer Adrienne Smith who, along with Neil Chantler, filed the petition on Lang’s behalf.

The petition to the BC Supreme Court argued this was “in contravention of his oath of office, the pecuniary interest prohibition in section 58 of the School Act, and Chilliwack School Board policy.”

He was also “specifically advised that he could lose his seat if he declined to recuse himself,” Smith explained.

“Since then the Board has asked Trustee Neufeld to resign. He has not.”

In a decision posted online on Thursday (Jan. 27), Justice William Veenstra sided with Neufeld’s application to dismiss Lang’s petition under the Protection of Public Participation Act (PPPA).

The so-called anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) legislation came into effect in B.C. in 2019, and was designed to stop lawsuits by wealthy individuals and corporations against journalists and others expressing opinions in the public interest.

The first time anti-SLAPP legislation was used in court was actually in a case involving Neufeld when he filed a civil lawsuit against former BCTF president Glen Hansman. Hansman had made comments about the trustee in 2017 in the debate about SOGI-123, an anti-bullying gender identity school materials.

But the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned that decision. Neufeld’s defamation lawsuit against Hansman will now continue.

READ MORE: Neufeld wins appeal for freedom of expression in defamation case

Neufeld’s defence against Lang’s petition alleged that the court action was started as a way to stifle Neufeld’s participation in a matter of public interest.

Lang argued that while the subject of an in camera meeting might be a curiosity to the public, the very definition of in camera means it is legally not a matter of public interest.

“The public may be curious about the deliberations, but the public has no right to inquire into those deliberations,” Justice Veenstra quoted Lang’s submissions. “The deliberations occurred in camera. They concerned a highly sensitive subject matter and were likely subject to legal privileges.”

Lang’s lawyers argued the petition had merit, and further that Neufeld was using the application to have it dismissed “simply to delay his inevitable removal from the Board.”

Justice Veenstra said the merits and appropriateness of Neufeld’s comments on SOGI 123 were not at issue in the case under consideration. His decision was solely on the law governing conflicts of interest and the anti-SLAPP legislation.

Veenstra dismissed the case under the PPPA.

Lang declined to comment citing advice from his lawyers. Lang’s lawyer Smith said that Lang was considering his options, one of which would be an appeal.

Neufeld did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the decision.

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