In an unanimous decision, the B.C. Court of Appeal found Christine Torgrimson and George Ehring — former elected trustees of the Salt Spring Island Local Trust Committee, a land-use planning body — were in conflict when they voted to approve grants to two societies for which they were directors.
“I don’t think it means you shed all other memberships [when you are elected to public office],” said Alexander, who represented the group of Saltspring residents who brought the legal action against the trustees. “But I do think it means you shed your leadership roles inside those not-for-profit organizations.”
Alexander noted that people who run for local government office often cut their teeth as leaders of volunteer groups.
“It’s a stepping stone from leadership of those organizations to running for municipal office,” he said. “But when you advance to the municipal office, or move up to the A-team, so to speak, you’ve got to leave the farm team behind.”
In April 2011, Torgrimson, Ehring and three others incorporated the Salt Spring Island Water Council Society. Three months later, in July 2011, they incorporated the Salt Spring Island Climate Action Council Society.
At a meeting of the three-member Salt Spring Island Local Trust Committee in September 2011, both supported Torgrimson’s motion to dedicate $4,000 to fund a water council workshop to raise awareness of water issues on Saltspring. In October, both supported a motion to give $4,000 to the Climate Action Society to provide a progress report on greenhouse gases.
Neither motion was on the agenda, and the trustees did not mention that they were directors of the societies when discussing the grants.
A group of Saltspring residents asked the B.C. Supreme Court to have Ehring and Torgrimson found in conflict and disqualified from holding office.
Justice Brian MacKenzie dismissed the petition on the grounds that the evidence did not disclose either a direct or indirect financial interest.
“It is personal economic self-interest that must be in conflict with the official’s public duty,” MacKenzie wrote.
He said the evidence did not establish that the grants had the potential to affect the personal financial interests of Torgrimson or Ehring.
Eight Saltspring residents proceeded with an appeal, though neither Torgrimson nor Ehring sought re-election in the November 2011 municipal election.
Alexander, the group’s lawyer, said that transferring the money to the societies — which he said not everyone was entitled to belong to — essentially moved the money offline. “So they didn’t have to account anymore for what they actually did with the money.”
The B.C. Court of Appeal unanimously overturned the lower court’s decision.
Appeal Court Justice Ian Donald, who wrote the decision, said MacKenzie took too narrow a view of a conflict.
“When they voted for the expenditure of public money on the two contracts, which master were they serving, the public or the societies?” Donald wrote.
“In these circumstances, a reasonable, fair-minded member of the public might well wonder who got the better bargain.”
While the residents had asked that Ehring and Torgrimson be ordered to repay the funds, Donald said there was no basis for such an order.
The decision might force other bodies, such as the Capital Regional District, to reconsider how they operate some facilities, Alexander said.
For example, he said, Juan de Fuca Parks and Recreation and the Royal and McPherson theatres are operated for the CRD through non-profit societies.
Both societies have local politicians as directors.
“Those two [societies], they are going to have to probably rethink. And there’s probably more because the CRD tends to have that in their structure,” he said.
Neither Torgrimson nor Ehring could be reached for comment.
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