Now that most of the turmoil over the mid-block crosswalk on College Street just west of North Front has calmed down its worth looking at an interesting aspect of this debate that has largely been overlooked.
As noted, both during the original debate and discussions about reopening it, two members of council, Garnet Thompson and Jackie Denyes, did not take part due to conflicts of interest.
Thompson’s conflict was that he was a former employee of Quinte Gardens and Denyes’ was that her mother-in-law is a resident of the facility. Residents of Quinte Gardens led the push to have the crossing put in, including sending in a petition and making a delegation to council.
On the surface, Thompson’s and Denyes’ declaration of conflict makes sense (no one wants to cross their mother-in-law, not even politicians.) The thing is not everything about the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act actually is that straight-forward.
The basics of the act are fairly simple: generally, if there is a matter before Council that touches on the councillor’s “direct or indirect pecuniary interest”, then there the councillor must refrain from participating in the decision-making process related to the matter.
Where things get interesting is when we start talking about “indirect” interests and where a councillor’s interest reaches to.
First of all, the reach: a councillor may be considered in conflict if a parent, spouse, or child is in conflict. Further, included in that are adopted children, a person whom a parent treats as a child of their family and “a person who has demonstrated an intention to treat a person as a member of his or her family notwithstanding that person is not the genetic parent of the councillor.”
In other words, mother-in-law definitely on the books for this.
As is employer. The act also says its not just about the individual gaining financially: if they work for someone who gains – or loses – money, they are in conflict as well.
So former employee? Well maybe. Better safe than sorry probably.
But here’s the rub: where’s the pecuniary interest – good or bad – for Quinte Gardens or someone living in Quinte Gardens?
Before we get into increased property values etc. it should be noted the act specifically omits councillors from conflicts that impact the populace generally or even a part of the population generally ie a neighbourhood park, or, arguably, a cross walk.
In fact there appears to be no benefit to Quinte Gardens from a cross walk aside from happier tenants, but that’s a pretty far stretch to try and say the facility has a financial say in this matter.
So while on the surface it appeared Councillors Thompson and Denyes may have had fairly obvious conflicts, in reality it appears they might not have.
And here is where things go from complex to bizarre.
First, for anyone starting to think this may be a way to get the crosswalk quashed, think again. The only person who can determine whether a conflict existed or not is a judge and that declaration would require the various machinations of any area where a judge is involved. By the time it happened the crosswalk will be built.
Even then, there is a section of the act that recognizes that conflict issues can arise out of simple error – not malfeasance – which would almost certainly be the case here.
And then there is a provision of the act which says even a finding of guilt in terms of violating conflict of interest does not automatically mean a decision of council is overturned or voided.
But most important of all – and this struck me as most bizarre as well – there is nothing in the act at all that pertains to someone declaring a conflict when they don’t really have one.
Everything in the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act pertains to dealing with someone acting in conflict; it doesn’t deal in any way with someone declaring they have a conflict when they don’t.
When I asked Belleville city clerk Matt MacDonald about it, he said he has never heard of anyone actually getting challenged on declaring a conflict when they don’t have one, or even how someone would do that.
Which means the only thing stopping someone from avoiding a debate they don’t want to get involved in is to declae a conflict of interest.
Now I’m not for a minute suggesting either Thompson or Denyes did that – far from it. But the reality is they may have inadvertly removed themselves from an important city debate over a conflict of interest that didn’t exist.
And there is no way anyone could have done anything about it or can do anything about it now.
Ultimately fixing this requires the province to act, something for which none of us should hold our breath.
In the meantime, maybe Belleville should consider implementing a review process, or at least some sort of evaluation process, for councillors concerned they might be in conflict and for those who might believe they are not.
Because no councillor should walk away from a debate they don’t have to. Even if it means putting up with a mother-in-law’s wrath.
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