Maple Ridge councillor votes for project, then sells it

Craig Speirs doesn’t think that should be allowed, although nothing in
Charter prevents it

Should Maple Ridge Coun. Al Hogarth, a realtor, be able to vote for a condo project, then three years later sell those units?

Coun. Craig Speirs says the Community Charter shouldn’t allow that.

But Hogarth says he follows all the rules in the Charter – the document that governs how B.C. municipalities are run.

And he says the District of Maple Ridge receives far more from his expertise as a realtor than the yearly $43,051 he earns as councillor.

One property Hogarth is currently selling is a 21-unit condo complex called Urban Green, at 22858 Lougheed Hwy., where he’s the main realtor.

If he sells the units without another realtor involved, he can earn 5.5 per cent on the first $100,000 and 2.5 per cent on the balance of the price for each condominium. Prices on the Urban Green website start at $151,900 for a one-bedroom unit and $182,800 for two bedrooms.

Hogarth will have to split the commissions on most of the units, and combined with other fees, will  make about $1,500 on each sale.

As a councillor, in March 2008, he voted in favour of a development and variance permit for the project.

That was before he had any connection with the investor or any interest in that project.

“I actually didn’t even know those folks until 2010. I didn’t have a clue who they were in 2008.”

Hogarth said there isn’t a conflict because he had no connection with the project at the time of voting.

That’s supported by Mayor Ernie Daykin, who said if Hogarth isn’t under contract there’s no benefit to him.

“He knows the rules. He knows the standards.”

According to the Charter, councillors can’t join in discussions or attend meetings if they have a direct or indirect financial interest in an agenda item.

However, he excused himself from a June 20 council discussion on another application, a six-storey office-condo complex proposed for 223rd Street and Lougheed Highway, even though he has no financial interest in it. That project is financed by the same investors who built Urban Green.

He hasn’t been chosen to market that project, although it’s been discussed.

“I’m certainly hopeful of it, but that’s up to them.”

The application was at its first stage in the application process, at committee meeting, which means, as it progresses through the approval stage and different readings, Hogarth will have to excuse himself each time.

Speirs wants to change the Charter to preclude politicians from voting on something in which they may later have an interest.

“If you can vote on something one week and sell it the next, I think that’s a conflict,” Speirs says.

“From my way of thinking, that shouldn’t be allowed.

“I don’t think it’s a good position for anybody to be in, to have to be their own moral compass.”

Hogarth says Speirs likes to keep raising the topic, but the Community Charter and the Election Act allow him to earn a living.

“I’m extremely confident in how I’m doing things,” Hogarth said, adding that he doubts if the number of applications in which he’s involved account for even half a per cent of what lands on council’s desk.

He was the one who alerted municipal staff about the three acres for sale at Selkirk Avenue and 227th Street.

He had a client who was looking at the property.

Hogarth, though, gave up his client and told the district about the opportunity.

It didn’t take long to convince others in municipal hall to make the purchase, without his involvement in the transaction, so the district could move forward with its plans to improve the downtown.

The district has cleared the property, then will resell it, providing the new buyer has a plan for developing it.

“I think it was the best decision we made for a long time. Did I make a dime on it? Absolutely not.

“Personally, I think the citizens of this community are getting pretty decent value out me compared to one or two others.”

Speirs says politicians have to be extra careful to avoid even an appearance of conflict.

It’s that general perception that could explain voter apathy and low turnout at election time, he added.

“We can get ourselves into trouble so quickly. Maybe it’s reality, maybe it’s perception.”

He said Hogarth did the right thing by walking away from discussions on the 223rd Street project, “and I applaud him on that.”

Everything Hogarth has done has been upright, Speirs added.

At the June 20 committee meeting, Hogarth also excused himself from another subdivision proposal for Lougheed Highway and 242nd Street. Hogarth doesn’t have any interest in the property, but is managing another separate property for the applicant.

“Anything that I have any inkling of any involvement in, whether it’s property management for a company or for an individual, I’m very diligent about making that declaration.”

The same goes for when he’s making an inquiry for clients at municipal hall. That’s part of his job as a realtor he said, adding he knows what staff can and can’t do and he follows the rules.

He disagreed that working as a councillor helped his real estate business.

“Clearly, it’s basically somewhat of a hindrance at times.”

Speirs respects realtors for their good work and for being boosters of their communities.

But he maintains, they shouldn’t be allowed to sit on municipal councils.

“It’s fraught with conflict.”

Last year, he wrote to the B.C. Local Government Elections Task Force, saying those in the development industry shouldn’t be allowed to vote on land-use decisions.

That suggestion was ignored in the report issued later. It instead called for limiting election spending, but not campaign contributions.

Speirs also disagrees with councillors voting on proposals put forth by the same people who donated to their election campaigns.

That’s why he excused himself from a June 20 council vote on a subdivision proposal at 104th Avenue and 245B Street.

One of the proponents, Rebecca Awram, was Speirs’s largest contributor in the 2008 election, writing him a cheque for $500.

“When somebody gives you large amounts of cash, you shouldn’t be making a decision on something that would benefit them.

“To me, it’s a bit of a no-brainer as far as conflict goes.”

He also said it was “ridiculous” when council voted last year in favour of sending the Pelton Nursery land exclusion application to the Agricultural Land Reserve, when the family donated to some councillors’ campaigns.

Norm and Betty Pelton made the largest single contribution to Mayor Ernie Daykin’s 2008 campaign, topping all donors with a contribution of $3,500.

Norm and Betty Pelton also contributed $250 each to the 2008 campaigns of three others on council, Judy Dueck, Mike Morden and Hogarth. Councillors have said in the past that the donations don’t influence their voting.

Hogarth, along with Couns. Cheryl Ashlie, Dueck, Morden and Mayor Daykin voted to send the application to the commission, which later rejected it.

Coun. Morden also excuses himself from any discussion about the downtown incentive plan that council created to attract investment. He owns a property that used to be outside the downtown area, but is now within the borders.

Public perception is the key, Morden said.

But he said contributions from the Peltons had no influence on his decision to support the ALC exclusion application; he just wanted to see jobs and economic development in the area.

Speirs doesn’t expect anything to change with Maple Ridge council because councillors use those contributions to help pay for their campaigns.

“You won’t hear my council bringing it up. It’s just not going to happen.

“This council is not interested increasing voter turnout because they know they can get re-elected with the folks that show up today.”

He likes the legal advice that generally states, if it feels like a conflict – it is.

And just because something’s legal, Speirs said, doesn’t mean it’s right.