Split vote on conflict of interest policy

Valemount Village Council
Valemount Village Council

By: Korie Marshall

For the first time since taking office again in December, a motion passed in Valemount Council Chambers without Mayor Jeannette Townsend pounding the gavel.

Three Councillors voted in favour of adopting a policy regarding conflict of interest for Council members. Councillor Peter Reimer and Mayor Townsend both voted against the motion.

Mayor Townsend tried throughout the meeting to have the matter deferred. Before the vote, she said she wanted a memo added to the agenda about a new select committee that she wanted to appoint to review policies. She said it was not added to the agenda because Corporate Officer Andrew Young requested it be left until after the results from the organizational review are released. The review results are expected shortly. She also asked several times if the matter could be deferred, but three councillors voted in favour of the motion as accepted in the agenda, in favour of having a policy in place.

“I guess that passes,” said Townsend, without the usually confident hammer of the gavel.

“I think staff has done a really good job in clarifying areas of the Charter,” said Councillor Sandy Salt after the motion was made. “The Community Charter can be misconstrued and misunderstood based on interpretation; I’ve experienced it in the past.”

“I’m in favour of it too, this is for our protection, and it’s well thought out,” said Councillor Hollie Blanchette. “It’s clear, concise; it’s to the point, and it is only going to benefit those it is supposed to be protecting.”

“It is a trending recommendation by the auditor general of local government as well,” noted Councillor Owen Torgerson.

Councillor Peter Reimer listed a number of things that bothered him about the policy. None of them were mentioned at the previous Council meeting when the policy was first presented, nor when the Goat asked him after that meeting if he had specific concerns.

During the meeting, Reimer said the document goes outside of policy and more into trying to define what conflict of interest is. He says he found a one page policy for the City of Kelowna that “correctly referenced the Community Charter and the Conflict of Interest Act as it’s written in the province of British Columbia for everybody that occupies chairs such as this.”

In the text of the Members’ Conflict of Interest Act for BC, a “member” is defined as a member of the Legislative Assembly or of the Executive Council which are part of provincial government in BC, not of municipal government.

Reimer questioned whether “Outside Interest” meant a business person sitting on Council would have to turn a potential customer away because there might be some future conflict with his or her duties as a Councillor.

“I think that means any business person may as well hang up their hat as far as being on Council. I find that part very disturbing,” said Reimer.

He also questioned the admonition to refrain from criminal conduct, asking if that clause gave him license to engage in criminal conduct if it did not harm the Village’s business or reputation.

“The senators in Ottawa are having trouble figuring that out, and now we are supposed to try to figure it out,” said Reimer. “I don’t think any of us should be engaging in criminal conduct at any time.”

He said it could take a group of Philadelphia lawyers a long time to figure out what vexatious allegations might be. “Long past the time that I am on this council,” said Reimer. He said he would support a simple policy like the one the city of Kelowna has.

“I find discrepancies here as well, and I should like to recommend to Council that it be reconsidered,” said Mayor Townsend. “I believe our Council is pretty clear on what a pecuniary interest is or a non-pecuniary interest is. I think we all know based on common sense, and I don’t think anyone here would not know if they were in conflict of interest.” Townsend gave the example of Torgerson recusing himself on the matter of the zoning amendment for a current church property because he was a member of the congregation.

“There is no conflict, but he is just making sure,” said Townsend.

“There’s nothing saying we can’t adopt this and amend it later, so that we at least have a policy in place,” said Salt.

“But are we not governed by the Community Charter at this time anyway?” asked Townsend.

Anne Yanciw, Valemount’s chief administrative officer, explained that the Charter is the foundation for many aspects of municipal government, like setting schedules for Council meetings, but each municipality can build on the foundation with policies like these.

“Can we not defer this until we get copies of the City of Kelowna’s policy?” Townsend asked.

“There’s only a few issues you’ve mentioned, can we not just adopt it and go back and amend?” asked Blanchette. “Then we have a policy in place.”

“In the meantime, this governs us,” said Townsend.

“Its protecting us, and protecting future councillors,” said Blanchette.

The motion to adopt the policy passed with three votes.

During public comment, resident Vicky White asked why the changes were needed, and why wouldn’t Council defer the decision until the people of the Village had a chance to look it over.

“And what is wrong with our current Charter? And is it legal to change it without breeching the Conflict of Interest Act which is federal and provincial law?” White asked.

Rashmi Narayan said the policy is in line with Council’s decision to be transparent and to audit the Village’s performance.

“It doesn’t have to be seen as binding, it is only about being more transparent,” said Narayan. “I think it is a good thing to be open and transparent.”

Responding to further questions from the Goat, Townsend said that there were times during her years on Council that members recused themselves because of a real or perceived conflict, but very seldom.

“Issues just didn’t arise in our small town,” said Townsend.

She said common sense should be enough to know when there is a conflict, but if there is doubt, it should be discussed with the CAO who should have full knowledge of what constitutes a real or a perceived conflict, or the option of consulting a legal opinion.

Townsend echoed Reimer’s comments that criminal activity should not be mentioned in the policy.

“There should be NO criminal activity – period. Any criminal activity should disqualify an elected person,” said Townsend.

“We are there to serve our neighbours, friends, and all who live in our community to the best of our ability,” said Townsend. “It should be simple to know whether or not an elected person is in a conflict, and just recuse oneself. If there is doubt, the CAO should know.”

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