When does big money in local politics cross the line?

Citizens deserve undivided loyalty from their elected officials, said appeals court in 2013 Salt Spring I. case

NPA mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe “questions legality of Vision Vancouver’s cash-for-favours scandal,” shouts the headline atop his party’s midday Oct. 29 news release that landed in my email box.

Interesting question, from the challenger who put the incumbent mayor on-the-spot at the Oct. 26 debate.

I broke the story in the Vancouver Courier on Oct. 16, after a citizen leaked a recording of the meeting to me at which Vision Vancouver city councillors Geoff Meggs and Raymond Louie and Park Board Commissioners Niki Sharma and Trevor Loke sought the civic workers’ union’s votes and donations. Members of the union discussed their motivation for supporting Vision Vancouver. Vision wants to win on Nov. 15. CUPE Local 1004 wants to win at the bargaining table when its contract is up in 2015. (Read more background and hear the recordings at this link.)

Could the pledge to not contract-out union jobs by four Vision Vancouver elected officials and the subsequent pledge of $102,000 by CUPE Local 1004 have placed the elected officials in a real or perceived conflict of interest? Could citizens have grounds to file a court petition for their removal from office before or after the election?

A B.C. Court of Appeal tribunal ruled unanimously Jan. 11, 2013 on the case of Schlenker vs. Torgrimson, overturning a lower court ruling.

Before the 2011 election, citizens on Salt Spring Island petitioned for removal of two people from the island’s Local Trust Committee. Christine Torgrimson and George Ehring were on the LTC when $4,000 contracts were given to the Water Council Society and Climate Action Society. Neither disclosed that they were directors of the newly incorporated societies, but they argued they had no financial interest because they were not paid directors of the societies.

According to the judgment:

“When they voted for the expenditure of public money on the two contracts, which master were they serving, the public or the societies? In these circumstances, a reasonable, fair-minded member of the public might well wonder who got the better bargain…

“As directors of the Societies, the respondents were under a fiduciary duty to put the Society’s interests first. Directors of societies, by virtue of their position, have an indirect interest in any contract a society is awarded. When the respondents moved and voted in favour of resolutions that benefitted their Societies through the granting of contracts, arguably contracts the Societies might not have been awarded had the councillors not also been directors, their duties as directors to put the Society’s interests first were in direct conflict with their duties as councillors to put the public’s interests first.”

The appeals court ruled that the public of Salt Spring Island did not have the undivided loyalty of their elected officials regarding the expenditure of public funds. “It makes no difference that they put no money into their own pockets,” said the verdict.

The Vision Vancouver elected officials could argue they went to CUPE Local 1004 on behalf of their political party and they have a duty to uphold their party’s interests. That includes raising funds from unions, which parties on the left side of the political spectrum have done for decades. The $102,000 raised from Local 1004 and its B.C. and national headquarters was for the party, not the politicians. But they were also there as elected officials, asking for support on voting day to keep their jobs in public office. Their employers are ultimately all the citizens of Vancouver, not just party officials and union members.

It is an interesting question to ponder. Citizens can decide at the ballot box on Nov. 15, voting day.

Of course, all parties, NPA included, need to be subject to more stringent campaign finance laws that would govern who can give and how much they can give. For now, corporations and unions are free to give as much as they want in B.C. and the law says we won’t find out the who and the how much until the new year, long after the election is decided. Vision, NPA and all the other parties running mayoral candidates on Nov. 15 could do what was done in Toronto, and just release a list of their donors before voting day. What are they afraid of?

The public has a right to know who the interests are that seek to influence the decisions made by the people in public institutions.

The full ruling is below. Mobile users click here -> 2013bcca9


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