Paradise councillors conflicted over conflict rules

By Craig Westcott   |   The Shoreline

Regarding what is normally routine council business, Paradise Deputy Mayor Elizabeth Laurie asked her colleagues Tuesday if there was any way to dispense with the weekly declarations of conflict of interest by some members of council whenever it comes time to pay the Town’s bills.

Nearly every meeting, councillor Sterling Willis first, followed by Mayor Dan Bobbett, separately ask council to vote on whether they are in a conflict of interest due to some of the bills being owed to companies that contributed to their respective election campaigns. Most meetings, the request involves Fairview Investments. And every meeting that it arises, councillors Allan English and Paul Dinn are the only ones to vote that, yes, they are in a conflict of interest. The others always vote that Willis and Bobbett are not in a conflict. The only unusual thing about the process, other than the matters almost always involve Willis and Bobbett, is that neither gentleman leaves the chamber while his colleagues decide his fate.

This past week, council voted to approve some $1.8 million in invoices and bills. The amount being paid to Fairview Investments wasn’t specified.

“This is coming up a lot,” Laurie said of the campaign contributions. “Conflict of interest is of course very serious and we did have legal opinions and the legal opinion stated that … they felt we were not in conflict.”

Laurie noted all councillors disclosed their campaign donors lists and contributions within 60 days of last fall’s election. “That information is available for the public to view,” she added. “I’m just curious, what other municipalities are doing this? There are so many municipalities across the province that must be dealing with this. Are they doing the same thing we’re doing? What are other levels of government doing with these campaign contributions? It’s taking up a lot of our time. I know it’s important, but it seems like it’s a lot of the repetitive companies that we are doing.”

Mayor Bobbett said it is something the Town could look into. “But again, I think it is a climate that has evolved over time about conflict of interest,” he said. “We do take it very seriously and we have to look at it (prior to votes on motions).”

Laurie didn’t seem fully convinced, at least when it comes to campaign contributions and every councillor’s obligation to vote on whether to approve payment of the town’s bills.
“If you declare it (a conflict) at one meeting, do we need to be doing it at every meeting from here until the future?” Laurie asked.

“That would be something for Municipal Affairs to check,” said Bobbett, who asked a senior staff member to contact the department for advice about the issue.

“I thought in a conflict of interest issue we dealt with earlier this year, we had a legal opinion that you would have to vote on it each and every meeting,” said councillor Dinn.

“Yes, your Worship, it’s very murky waters as you’re probably well aware,” chipped in councillor English. “When I came on council in September, I was told we had a verbal opinion from our lawyers that in the event that I voted in a matter related to the lawyers, I would be in a conflict of interest.”

English was referring to a situation where council was asked to vote payment for a bill of less than $100 from the St. John’s law firm which represents the Town and which also happens to employ his son. His son had not worked on the matter in question. But, after English participated in the vote, he was accused by another councillor of having broken the conflict of interest rules. Under the Municipalities Act, anyone deemed to have broken those rules is ejected from council and barred from seeking office for two years.

“Our lawyers investigated,” said English. “It cost the Town $10,000 and the conclusion of the lawyers was that there really was no conflict of interest, not only in that particular incidence, but at any point in time since I came on council… I’ve certainly been cautioned here that we’ve got to be super sensitive to it now that I’ve been burned. So, everybody should probably be super sensitive to it.”

Bobbett said Laurie’s point pertained to campaign contributions specifically, not to other types of conflict, such as where a councillor or a relative is deemed to have benefitted financially from a decision of council.

“There is a school of thought out there that a campaign contribution doesn’t put you in a conflict of interest,” English allowed, “but there is another school of thought that instead of getting money at the end (because of a decision favourable to a donor), you’re getting it up front.”

English added he has no problem with the Town following up with Municipal Affairs for advice.

“And they’re actually reviewing the (Municipalities) Act itself,” said Bobbett.

“It’s a quagmire,” said English. “In the municipal world it (conflict of interest) is the equivalent of capital punishment; you don’t get a slap on the wrist and you don’t get a letter in your file, you are gone and it can be over as something as inconsequential as occurred in my instance of less than a hundred bucks. If it wasn’t for the legal opinion that came back to contradict the original legal opinion, I would have been out of office over nothing.”

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