When Deer Lake Coun. Jean Young suggested representatives of council may be in a conflict when it came to approving building permits last week, there came a sigh from across the table.
It is likely commonplace at council tables, especially in small towns. The notion that everybody knows everybody, and the ties — whether a family member or friend — in close-knit communities pose a particular challenge.
Conflict of interest comes into play at a council table when a person, or a family member, has a monetary interest in an issue. There are a number of guidelines set out in the Municipalities Act outlining what constitutes a conflict.
Young suggested Mayor Dean Ball should declare a conflict in relation to residential building permits, primarily for renovations. The mayor is also the owner of Home Hardware in Deer Lake. Nothing in the permit was linked to that particular business, and there are competing businesses in the town.
Ball said he did not believe he was in conflict. A number of council representatives agreed. The Municipalities Act was read, and again the consensus appeared to be that there was not a conflict.
Young suggested it was better to be “safe than sorry” and she was just looking out for the mayor.
Ball said he would declare a conflict to move on with the approval of the permits.
He was not the only council member who did this. Young also suggested the same to Deputy Mayor Sandra Pinksen in approving a permit for renovations to a family member of her husband.
Pinksen said she did not see how it could possibly be deemed that she could benefit from the permit. But in the end, she also declared a conflict.
Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Kent said the first scenario involving Ball was clearly not a conflict.
“That’s ludicrous,” he said. “That’s a big, big stretch.”
In terms of the Pinksen situation, Kent was less decisive. He acknowledged he did not directly see a monetary gain for Pinksen. Regardless of a relationship with people in the town, it is not a conflict unless there is a monetary gain.
“After 17 years at this, my rule of thumb has been ‘when in doubt, step out,’ ” said Kent. “If you believe you could be in conflict, it is better to declare that than to not.”
In small towns, it could become very difficult to conduct business if every council member declares a conflict over everything item that reaches an agenda.
However, Kent said it is important for a possible conflict of interest to be disclosed, allowing council to vote on whether it is a conflict situation. At that point, the onus is on council to make the right decision. A wrong choice still could mean legal ramifications.
Kent said the Department of Municipal Affairs has people and resources available to help clarify any issues such as conflicts of interest.
Frank Tibbo of Gander, who spent about 10 years on the board level of the organization that is now Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador, said he sees no issue with Ball partaking in votes such as building permits, as long as there is no direct link between the hardware store and the particular permit.
As for the Pinksen situation, Tibbo would recommend declaring a conflict. The relationship factor brings this closer to a conflict, he says, even if there is not a direct monetary gain apparent.
Tibbo said the perceptions of conflicts are also important to avoid, even if the legal line is not crossed. Recommended practice when in doubt, he suggests, is for council members to ask their colleagues if they feel there is a conflict.
There are consequences if the line is crossed.
“Sometimes people didn’t realize it and other times they just weren’t thinking,” he said. “You have to be careful because somebody can bring you up on it afterwards. If a councillor is in conflict, if government or some judge determines he was, you would have to leave council.”
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
A councillor is in a conflict of interest when an issue comes before council wherein he/she has a monetary interest. The Municipalities Act, 1999 Section 207 states:
1. A councillor shall not vote on or speak to a matter before the council or a committee of the council where
a. The councillor has a monetary interest in the matter distinct from an interest arising from his or her functions as a councillor;
b. The councillor has a monetary interest directly or indirectly in the matter;
c. A relative of the councillor has a monetary interest in the matter;
d. The councillor is an officer, employee or agent of an incorporated or unincorporated company, or other association of persons, that has a monetary interest in the matter.
2. For the purpose of subsection (1) a relative of a councillor means a father, mother, spouse, cohabiting partner, sister, brother, child, step-child, ward, mother-in-law, father-in-law, sister-in-law, or brother-in-law of the councillor.
3. For the purpose of subsection (2)
a. "Cohabiting partner" means a person with whom a councillor is living in a conjugal relationship outside marriage;
b. "Spouse" means a person to whom a councillor is married, unless the person and the councillor have made a separation agreement or their support obligations and family property have been dealt with by a court order.
4. In order for an interest to be considered as one falling within the prohibition set out in subsection (1) it shall be an interest distinct from an interest held in common with the other citizens or classes of citizens of the municipality.
Source: Department of Municipal Affairs