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Practising conflict of interest avoidance
By Neil Corbett
Maple Ridge city councillors are unlikely to ever find themselves embroiled in a Rob Ford-type conflict of interest, according to Mayor Ernie Daykin.
Ford is the Toronto mayor ejected from office for violating the Ontario Conflict of Interest Act. He used official city letterhead to solicit donations to his private football foundation in 2010. Then, two years later, when council debated whether he should repay the $3,150 raised, Ford inappropriately took part in the debate.
Daykin said council members in the district know better than to use their office to promote a cause they have an interest in, or to debate issues in which they have a clear conflict or perception of conflict.
For example, Daykin is the treasurer for his church, so he excuses himself whenever council discusses the issue of tax exemptions for churches.
Other councillors excuse themselves for various interests.
Daykin said in nearly a decade on council he has never seen such a clear case of conflict of interest as that involving Ford.
The district gives new members of council an orientation session, and the municipality’s lawyer explains their roles, legal obligations, and conflicts of interest.
“It is made, in my view, pretty clear,” Daykin said.
However, the system is open to abuse, and rules need to be tightened, according to SFU political science and urban studies professor Patrick ‘Paddy’ Smith.
He calls the area of election finance “the Wild West.”
Smith sends his students to municipalities across the Lower Mainland to collect election finance filings, and has found the two largest spending groups are developers and public sector unions.
In fast-growing Maple Ridge, as well as Pitt Meadows and other Lower Mainland suburbs, development is a key election issue.
“Developers play a big role,” he said.
Mosaic Homes, a residential and commercial development company, and a slew of people connected to the Cardiff Farms property in Pitt Meadows donated a considerable amount of money to three people on council during the last municipal election campaign.
But election rules only require disclosure – without spending limits, contribution limits or any limits on who can contribute.
“It really is a mess,” said Smith.
If a developer makes contributions to the campaigns of local politicians, there may be a real or perceived expectation that the politician will be more likely to approve their applications to the municipality.
Many B.C. politicians fear being found in conflict – where they can be technically innocent but found guilty in the court of public opinion.
“A fair number of them are attentive,” said Smith. “Conflict of interest is one of the things that has a high potential for career-ending politics.”
He has worked with all three of B.C.’s conflict of interest commissioners – Ted Hughes, Bert Oliver and Paul Fraser. Although their purvey is provincial politics, all three said they are questioned by municipal politicians needing help in conflict matters, and they will offer informal advice.
“An awful lot of municipal councillors are overly attentive,” said Smith.
That they are eager to police themselves is encouraging, because even tighter rules could not anticipate the many ways a politician could find himself or herself in conflict.
“Across the whole area of ethics in government, there is a vast amount of grey area.”