Victoria councillors to be reimbursed for legal fees

Victoria councillors will be reimbursed for legal fees if they have to consult a lawyer about possible conflicts of interest.

Councillors agreed during budget deliberations to a policy that would reimburse a council member $500 per consultation, up to a maximum of $1,500 a year, when conflict advice is sought from a lawyer.

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“The goal of the policy is that it is in the city’s best interest to have all council members participate in decisions whenever possible,” city solicitor Tom Zworski said.

“The questions or issues related to conflict of interest can be quite complex and these are matters that are individual to each councillor. Therefore, it’s not something that in-house legal counsel can advise individual councillors on,” he said.

Zworski said $500 should cover about two hours of legal advice, “which in most instances should be sufficient.”

Councillors unanimously endorsed the policy.

“It always has seemed a little inequitable to me that a councillor should be required to spend his or her own money to get legal advice on how to carry out their duties,” Coun. Geoff Young said. “It obviously to some extent gives an advantage to those who can afford it.”

Under the policy, councillors wanting independent legal advice will be free to contact a lawyer of their choosing and will be under no obligation to disclose the content of the advice given.

Coun. Ben Isitt proposed putting the $1,500-a-year cap on the funds a councillor could access for legal advice.

Some conflicts are unavoidable, Isitt said, but others arise only if a councillor is involved in business activities outside of council duties or has an active land portfolio.

“So I think to impose some limits to avoid a single council member basically using this entire amount, I don’t think is likely this year, but I think it would be a good practice,” Isitt said.

Staff said fees paid will be considered a taxable benefit.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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