This is the Life: When is a conflict of interest really a conflict?

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Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

I am not a big fan of elected representatives routinely recusing themselves from political discussions in which they might be perceived to have even the slightest personal conflict of interest. A few years ago, concerned that town councillors were leaving the room when discussions for funding non-profit organizations they were involved in, I waded through provincial guidelines and concluded that most recusals were unnecessary.

Examples might help. If a councillor is a member of the local arts council that has made routine application for funding, is he or she in conflict? Does a businessperson who sits on council have to leave the room for discussions that even remotely relate to his or her type of business?

On the surface, it all seems simple enough. A city council determines that a good way to reduce water consumption is to install water meters to measure it in each home within city boundaries. Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? I use the term “no-brainer” purposefully, because like “common sense” it’s a phrase that is rarely helpful. Both phrases are typically used as short cuts to slam the door on discussion and debate.

Mostly, guidelines and legislation concern themselves with people in power using their votes and influence to achieve a personal financial benefit. Pecuniary (of or relating to money) is the word commonly used. So is fiduciary (in the nature of trust or confidence). A conflict of interest is often described as a situation determined by “a reasonable person”. Like many legal writings, the descriptions are hard to pin down as being black and white in nature. And, when it comes to interpretation, there can often be considerable dispute in what is actually intended.

Is there a conflict, for instance, when council considers a request for a donated item to be auctioned off at a fundraiser? Is a member of the Rotary club making the request in conflict? What about a Rotarian who belongs to a different club, which might partner with the club in question to take on a community project? Is a non-Rotarian in conflict because the donation, when sold, is used for a trails project and the councillor is on the trails committee? Or happens to be a regular walker on the trail?

In none of these instances is there any direct pecuniary interest or financial benefit and I would argue that no recusal is necessary.

It isn’t that simple, though. In Grand Forks, a yearlong controversy has raged about the installation of water meters in homes. It led to the election of a mayor and some councillors who campaigned specifically against the need for water meters. In last week’s Grand Forks Gazette, a councillor wrote that she had received a legal opinion that she did not need to remove herself from discussions, that her ownership of a yard maintenance business did not put her in a conflict of interest. Even with this information at hand, she dissolved her business. Then, on Monday, the Grand Forks website posted another legal opinion that says that the councillor in question and the mayor, a plumbing business owner, are in conflict and should recuse themselves from all further council discussions about water meters.

It is a tangled web indeed. Personally, I don’t see where a yard maintenance business reaps a special financial benefit that would put the councillor in a conflict of interest situation. Sure, yard maintenance can include watering systems, but I think it is a stretch to say that a pecuniary interest was obvious enough to muzzle an elected official. Likewise with the mayor, who said in the news at election time that he had withdrawn his company’s initial interest in getting a contract to install the water meters when he concluded he was personally against metering.

The test for conflict of interest often comes down to public perception, “public” usually being defined as a reasonably intelligent and well-informed individual. In many local controversies, however, it would not be unusual for reasonably intelligent and well-informed individuals to be found in opposing camps. Personally, I think it should be demonstrable that an elected person will clearly reap a personal financial benefit from a particular decision. Otherwise, even more good people will lose all interest in seeking public office.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.