Editorial: Municipal conflicts of interest a growing issue

With a slew of conflicts of interest declared in relation to its light-rail transit project, it’s no wonder Waterloo Region has called for a provincewide commissioner to handle those issues at the municipal level.

As there are offices to deal with conflicts of interest at the provincial and federal levels, it seems logical to expect the same for municipalities.

As Law Times reports on page 11 this week, potential and alleged conflicts of interest present a conundrum for all of those involved: the politicians who face fees for legal opinions, the citizen complainants who put their own time and money into launching proceedings, and the public that has to deal with either the fallout from a complaint or the implications for local decision-making when municipal officials take an overly conservative approach and abstain from votes that they may otherwise have been able to participate in.

At the same time, it’s a confusing legal area. The boundaries of what a conflict is aren’t always clear and the rules on who pays the costs of legal opinions differ from municipality to municipality.

So there’s certainly a valid argument for a provincewide office that would make proactive rulings on whether politicians are in a conflict of interest should they go ahead and vote on an issue.

Under the current system, councillors can get outside legal advice that they most likely can rely on either at their own or the municipality’s expense. Should someone later allege a conflict, the matter goes before a judge.

But we only know whether or not someone was in a conflict if they don’t declare one and someone then makes a complaint that goes to a judge.

If they do declare one and abstain, we’ll never know if they did the right thing or if they were simply being overly cautious.

It’s unclear, however, whether municipalities want a provicewide commissioner or how they’d deal with the costs.

But given the recent discussions around conflicts, particularly in Mississauga, Ont., during its public inquiry last year, it’s certainly an idea worth considering.
— Glenn Kauth

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