Langley Township’s mayor and two councillors targeted for removal from office by a court petition will keep their council seats, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled Friday.
Justice Paul Walker dismissed a petition brought by group of 10 local voters to remove Mayor Jack Froese, Councillors Bob Long, and Blair Whitmarsh from office due to alleged conflict of interest. Former Coun. Angie Quaale, who lost in the 2018 election, was also a target of the petition.
“The petitioners have failed to establish that any of the respondents [Froese, Long, Whitmarsh, and Quaale] had a direct or indirect pecuniary interest in the impugned matters before them as members of the Township council,” Walker wrote in his decision. “On this basis, the petition must be dismissed.”
Walker also wrote that he accepted the “unchallenged evidence” that the mayor and councillors were acting in good faith and the best interests of the Township when debating and voting.
The case centered on conflicts of interest allegedly created by campaign donations to the council members from employees of development firms during the 2018 campaign.
Under the Community Charter, any group of 10 electors can petition to disqualify a council member due to a conflict of interest.
The timing of votes on specific development projects related to the campaign donors was at issue, argued Mark Underhill, the lawyer for the 10 voters.
In December, he argued that there was no need to demonstrate that the council members or mayor were “on the take” or directly agreed to vote a certain way in exchange for a donation, Underhill said.
“What I want to show you is in fact this legislation, the common law, going back over a century, is all about insuring the integrity of local government… and that the electorate can have the confidence that they have, in the words of the case law, ‘the undivided loyalty of their elected officials,’” Underhill said.
Meanwhile, lawyers J.W. Locke, representing the mayor and councillors, and James Goulden, representing the Township, argued that there had to be link beyond simply receiving a campaign contribution.
“There is nothing unlawful about giving campaign contributions, that’s well established,” Goulden said.
A promise, implicit or otherwise, to vote in a certain way was required in this case, Locke argued.
“I know it may be difficult, but some evidence from somebody who says these votes were tied to these contributions,” he said was required, not just the timing issue. “It’s inferential at best and speculative at worst.”
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The defense emphasized that there was no traditional financial link between the developers and any of the council members. None of them worked for the developers or had family members working for them.
Walker’s decision said there is a multi-step process in decisions of this sort.
First, the court has to determine if an elected official has a direct or indirect financial interest in a matter they are voting on. There may be some exceptions to the rule in legislation, or the interest may be so remote and minor that it’s considered inconsequential, Walker wrote.
Only after a direct interest in the matter has been established can the courts consider remedies – including possibly removing elected officials from office, Walker wrote.
The electors’ case didn’t even clear the first hurdle, the judge wrote.
He found a lack of a link between the campaign donations and the votes.
“They [the petitioners] acknowledge that they have no evidence to prove that the contributions, which they assert are sizable for municipal elections, in fact influenced the votes cast by each respondent,” Walker wrote.
“Ultimately, the case must be founded on evidence, not speculation,” Walker wrote later in his decision.