Municipal politicians seek clarity on conflict of interest after court ruling

Caution is the watchword for many of B.C.’s local politicians in the wake of a B.C. Court of Appeal decision on conflict of interest earlier this year.

In fact, so many B.C. municipal councillors were jumping up and leaving the room during this year’s budget discussions that several councils had difficulty maintaining a quorum.

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The Union of B.C. Municipalities wants the provincial government to sort the matter out.

“I just want clarity for local officials. I want it to be black and white,” says UBCM president Mary Sjostrom.

“We were elected to make decisions and we need to make those decisions,” she said.

The heightened awareness follows a January B.C. Court of Appeal decision involving two Saltspring Island Local Trust Committee directors.

In an unanimous decision, the appeals court 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, in 2011, they voted to approve grants to two societies for which they were directors, even though they had no direct pecuniary interest.

That has muddied the waters for municipal politicians, who are generally active in the community and are often members of many different community groups, churches and organizations prior to and while they are in office.

Local councillors have always been instructed to be cautious about the potential for conflict, but the decision has them looking even deeper,  Victoria Coun. Chris Coleman said.

“We’re all political animals. Some are more partisan than others but, in order to get elected, you have a group of people who you have worked with in the past. Now it’s really beginning to suggest that once you are elected, you should be cutting off all your associations — not just the formal ones,” Coleman said.

“What it does, of course, is give us less ability to work with our communities.”

It also makes it difficult for members of councils and regional district boards who are appointed by their elected body to sit as directors on boards of organizations such as airport or harbour authorities.

Coleman said one partial solution might be appointing citizen representatives instead of councillors to outside boards or authorities.

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard said the decision hasn’t affected his municipality as much as others because several years ago, in order to lessen councillor workloads, Saanich stopped making direct appointments to outside boards and instead designates councillor non-voting liaisons to various organizations.

“So instead of appointing a councillor to a board, we just appoint a liaison to their board. So therefore there’s no conflict to all these groups we give grants to,” Leonard said.

There’s no question, however, that the decision has had an impact on many municipalities and regional districts, Leonard said.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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