Pitt Meadows to check on conflicts

Considering free legal advice to councillors on conflict of interest

Pitt Meadows is looking at developing a policy that would see the city pay for legal advice for any council members who feel they may be in a conflict of interest.

Council agreed to ask staff to look into the costs and whether there are other communities that take a similar approach to conflict of interest issues before coming back with recommendations.

Mayor John Becker, a lawyer, added the amendment to council’s review of governance and expense policies at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Becker’s amendment directs staff to investigate the development of a policy that would provide legal advice for a council member if they believe they may be in a conflict of interest and report back on financial implications and whether other municipalities have such a policy.

He said the idea behind the new policy came after a recent meeting with council members and the city’s solicitor, Chris Murdy, surrounding legal responsibilities and the legal framework under which council operates.

Becker said, as it stands under the community charter, determining a conflict is left in the hands of individual council members.

“The challenge, of course, is a lay person trying to determine whether or not they are in a conflict of interest to begin with,” said Becker, owner of a law firm in Pitt Meadows.

“The costs of a legal opinion to determine that can certainly be very onerous, depending on the person’s ability to pay.”

He said the consequences of a wrong decision are what’s at stake behind any new policy.

“It would be unfortunate for a councilor to make a guess at whether they are or are not in a conflict of interest in an unfamiliar legal area,” he said Tuesday.

Becker said if a policy was adopted, council members could seek Murdy’s opinion on conflict issues at a cost to the city, not out of pocket.

While council approved city staff to investigate the policy, some where skeptical.

Coun. Bruce Bell and Janis Elkerton, who formed a team with Becker in last fall’s municipal election along with Dave Murray, said they have concerns about the cost to the city of hiring lawyers to determine what should be obvious to anyone sitting in council chambers.

“I always feel better to err on the side of caution,” said Elkerton, “and if you think you have a conflict, you should just step out.”

She said council worked hard to meet its goal of being fiscally responsible during its latest budget discussions and wouldn’t want to see it go to waste incurring unnecessary costs.

Elkerton also worries about having legal opinions affect the business of council and cause long delays.

“Just a caution, with all due respect to the lawyers here, you can get 10 different lawyers here with 10 slightly different opinions,” she said.

Coun. Bill Dingwall disagreed with Elkerton and Bell, and said having access to legal advice would provide clarity to individual council members so they can either participate or bow out over city business.

“The impact if we don’t is that, down the road, some council decisions could be undone,” said Dingwall. “Or there could be negative publicity directed at the city or any individual council member. By getting legal advice, it’s about doing things right, and doing the right things.”

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