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Chocolate is back on the menu for Vancouver city council

In the dying moments of a Vancouver city council meeting last week, when most people had stopped paying attention, NPA city Councillor Elizabeth Ball stood up and pried the lid off a can of worms that had been welded shut since 2006 – and for good reason. Her motion will be debated in council on Tuesday and, if it passes, it could have a lasting impact on council, city staff and generations of citizens.

For fear of wrongly paraphrasing the motion and causing widespread panic, I will quote directly from it:

"THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT Council direct staff to revisit the City's Code of Conduct and gift policy to make it clear that staff and volunteers may accept reasonable gifts of chocolate regardless of whether or not the individual is at an event or on paid time."

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That's right. You heard it right. If this motion passes, "reasonable gifts of chocolate" may be accepted by city staff, volunteers and presumably city councillors.

It's not as if we didn't know this was coming. Ms. Ball said as much when she submitted the motion on notice last week. And it was seconded by her NPA council-mate George Affleck. But seeing it now, in black and white, on the agenda for next week's meeting, well, this just got real.

Ms. Ball was deceptively casual about it – she made it look routine. She handed copies to the city clerk with a steady hand, not letting on about the gravity of the words printed on the page.

She began by saying that over the Christmas holiday there had been some confusion about the gift of chocolate to staff and volunteers. "I'm hoping we'll be able to clear up the confusion in the public eye, and also to make it possible for us to actually honour the intent of the original agreement," she told council, her voice never wavering.

And she did her homework, reaching all the way back to the controversial Code of Conduct adopted by council in 2006, which clearly states in section 9.5:

"Staff and advisory body members must not accept any gift or personal benefit given because of the individual's position. This includes gifts and personal benefits of a token value such as bottles of alcohol, free or subsidized meals, invitations to social functions organized by groups or community organizations, ties, scarves, and chocolates."

But Ms. Ball correctly reminded council that when that section of the Code of Conduct was adopted nearly eight years ago, the word "chocolate," after considerable debate, was stricken from the section.

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Fast forward to 2008 when, at a meeting of the Standing Committee of Council on Planning and Environment, council approved the amended wording to the Code of Conduct and gift policy to ensure that it complied with the Vancouver Charter and other existing laws and collective agreements.

The word "chocolates" was nowhere to be found.

Then, three years later, perhaps unaware of the significant deletion and just 12 days before the Ides of March, a city Standing Committee on City Services and Budgets approved amendments to the city's Code of Conduct and gift policy.

And just like that, it was done.

But far from becoming the anticipated Willy Wonka-ish dream world of milk chocolate waterfalls cascading into gently flowing chocolate rivers banked by rows of colourful marzipan flowers, the chocolate chill persisted.

Until now, two weeks before Valentine's Day.

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In her motion, Ms. Ball writes: "Recently there has been some confusion as to the intent of the Code of Conduct regarding gifts of chocolate for staff and volunteers; It is not the intention of the City to be Scrooge-like during the festive season."

Ms. Ball told council: "Many people – representatives of staff and members of the public – appeared before council to speak to the importance of being able to celebrate city staff and volunteers with reasonable gifts of chocolate for the holidays and special observances."

"It sounds like an unimportant issue in the great scheme of things, but it is important in terms of our public relations with the community," she concluded.

The question now of course is what constitutes a reasonable gift of chocolate?

One person's standard-sized Caramilk bar may be another person's heart-shaped box of Belgian hedgehogs. What about cocoa content, or whether the chocolate is fair trade?

Those are questions that may have to be passed on to future councils to debate.

I wish them well.

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