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MNL president Tony Keats says there can be a fine line between what is and isn’t a conflict of interest

The Municipalities Act currently says councillors are in conflict if they officers, employees or agents of an incorporated or unincorporated company, or other association of persons, that has a monetary interest in the matter.
The Municipalities Act currently says councillors are in conflict if they officers, employees or agents of an incorporated or unincorporated company, or other association of persons, that has a monetary interest in the matter. - 123RF Stock Photo

As a municipal politician for 26 years Tony Keats has been around a council table when the issue of conflict of interest has come up.

Keats, the mayor of Dover and president of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL), said sometimes the conflict is pretty obvious, especially when it comes to monetary items. At those times, he’d just step away.

Keats said it has a bit to do with public perception, adding it’s better to declare conflict when dealing with public funds. But there are times when the conflict is not so obvious and it’s those murky waters that has people like Keats concerned.

“I think what makes it unsure is we’re unsure of it ourselves,” he said.

Keats
Keats

So, Keats for one is looking forward to the changes to the province’s conflict of interest regulations that will come when the Municipalities Act is overhauled this year.

MNL has been provided input into the process.

“You’ve got to understand just the burden of the responsibility of councillors to decide what is conflict, what is not conflict,” said Keats.

“It comes down pretty hard on some councillors, especially in small rural communities when you’ve got multiple family members on there, or relatives on there or people that you work with on a day-to-day basis.”

Keats said making decisions on conflict of interest is making councils be the judge and jury, and that shouldn’t be.

Some communities, he said, have gone to the courts and been told they made a wrong decision on a conflict.

The range of potential conflicts are varied — property matters, monetary issues or making decisions that affect a councillor or councillor’s employer are just a few.

Keats said sometimes the line is very fine of whether someone is in a conflict.

Volunteering is one of those fine lines.

The act currently says a councillor is in conflict if they are an officer, employee or agent of an incorporated or unincorporated company, or other association of persons, that has a monetary interest in the matter.

Keats said just being a volunteer doesn’t immediately put someone strictly in conflict.

“At that point, it is a matter of transparency and accountability," he said. "If unsure, the act says they can put the question to council to decide.

“I think being cautious and declaring the conflict is probably the way to go,” said Keats. “If you think you are, declare it.”

Among things MNL would like to see in the new act is plain and simple language.

Keats also said there is a need for some sort of an appeal board to provide direction when there are questions.

“Somewhere that we can go to get better clarification or a ruling on it.”

A review of the minutes of municipal council meetings from Corner Brook, Deer Lake, Stephenville and Pasadena showed that conflict of interest does comes up regularly around council tables.

Corner Brook

From Oct. 16, 2017 to Nov. 19, 2018

Number of conflicts declared with no vote — 12

Conflict vote held and a councillor declared in conflict — 3

Conflict vote held and a councillor declared not in conflict — 0

Dec. 4, 2017

Barry Place – municipal plan amendment

Mayor Jim Parsons disclosed that an individual associated with a rezoning request contributed to his campaign and asked council to determine if he was in conflict of interest.

Council voted that he was and Parsons abstained from discussion and voting on the item.

June 11, 2018

Cleaning contract — Margaret Bowater Park

On a motion by Coun. Josh Carey, seconded by Deputy Mayor Bill Griffin, it was resolved to declare Coun. Linda Chaisson in conflict on this item. The motion was carried and Chaisson did not participate in deliberations or voting.

July 23, 2018

Hospital Hall – home for aged

After a motion to approve an application for the proposed home was introduced there was discussion on the name of applicant, which was not known by council or staff. Council expressed concern of potential conflict of interest, as Coun. Bernd Staeben’s son-in-law was an interested applicant in a similar application at this location.

A motion was made to declare Staeben in conflict. Mayor Jim Parsons and Coun. Tony Buckle vote against it, but the motion was carried and Staeben declared in conflict, so he did not participate in the vote on the application.

Deer Lake

Oct. 16, 2017 to Nov. 22, 2018

Number of conflicts declared with no vote — 15

Conflict vote held and a councillor declared in conflict — 2

Conflict vote held and a councillor/s declared not in conflict — 2

Dec. 18, 2017

Following an accusation that Coun. Myra Spence was in a conflict of interest when she voted in favour an application for a crematorium on Oct. 18, 2017, council held a vote on a motion that Spence was not in conflict when she voted.

The remaining five councillors present at the meeting voted in favour of the motion.

During the same meeting, Coun. Gordon Hancock informed council that he was unsure if he was in a conflict of interest with regard to the waste management section of the budget and asked council to vote on the matter.

A motion that Hancock was in conflict was passed by council.

March 12, 2018

Before an environment and housing report is presented, Mayor Dean Ball asks council to vote if he was in conflict on one of the items.

Council voted that he was in conflict on the item.

Oct. 1, 2018

Prior to Coun. Amanda Freake making a statement to the gallery regarding Park Fitness, both Coun. Hancock and Mayor Ball ask for a conflict of interest vote by council.

A motion that both are not in conflict of interest to listen or speak on Freake statement is passed by council.

Stephenville

Oct. 5, 2017 to Oct. 25, 2018

Number of conflicts declared with no vote — 11

Conflict vote held and a councillor declared in conflict — 0

Conflict vote held and a councillor declared not in conflict — 0

Pasadena

Oct. 2, 2017 to Nov. 5, 2018

Number of conflicts declared with no vote — 16

Conflict vote held and a councillor declared in conflict — 0

Conflict vote held and a councillor declared not in conflict — 3

Feb. 19, 2018

Councillor Derrick Anthony declared being in a conflict of interest in voting on concerns relating to West Haven Camp. A vote was held and council decided he was not in conflict.

July 16, 2018

Mayor Gary Bishop left the chambers as council voted on a motion that he was not in conflict of interest on a motion concerning the public sale of seven serviced lots owned by the Town of Pasadena. Council decided he wasn’t in conflict.
 

Oct. 15, 2018

Deputy Mayor Terry Randell questioned whether he’d be in conflict in relation to a payment to the Pasadena Strawberry Festival. Randell was a member of the festival committee, but not an executive member. Council voted that he was not in conflict.

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