Conflict allegation against Gregor Robertson isn't in same league as issues involving previous mayors
One of the most popular articles on the Georgia Straight website this weekend was about a court action against Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson.
Glen Chernen, a mayoral candidate for the upstart Cedar Party, filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court alleging that the mayor had violated conflict-of-interest provisions in the Vancouver Charter.
Here are the nuts and bolts of the case.
• The City of Vancouver allegedly negotiated a bad deal on behalf of taxpayers by leasing the former Vancouver police investigative office on East 8th Avenue to HootSuite Media Inc.
• The City of Vancouver had to be prodded repeatedly to release details of the lease, which paid $17 per square foot in the first year with the first three months thrown in for free.
• The mayor's chief of staff, Mike Magee, let the city's then–director of real estate services, Mike Flanigan, know about HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes's request for tenant improvements under a city program.
• The mayor showed up at HootSuite two days before the last election to hold Twitter social-media event.
• The mayor received a kit from HootSuite including a T-shirt and some stickers.
• There was another HootSuite town-hall meeting on May 23, 2013.
The case is before the courts and ultimately, it will be up to a judge to determine if Robertson failed to disclose any conflict of interest and if he will be required to vacate his office.
As someone who has observed Vancouver politics for many years, I can say that this alleged conflict involving Robertson doesn't raise nearly as many questions in my mind as do the actions of previous Vancouver mayors.
Sam Sullivan (2005–2008)
As a municipal politician, Sam Sullivan operated seven nonprofit societies and owned a management company that charged consulting fees to three of those charities.
The Straight reported before the 2005 mayoral election that three developers had sponsored one of the charities; other developers had made contributions to the Sam Sullivan Disability Foundation, which passed money to the charities.
Sullivan told the Straight in 2005 that fundraising departments in each of the charities operated independently of him. Therefore, he wouldn't necessarily know if individual developers were helping to fortify his income in any way. As such, there was no problem with him voting on rezoning applications that enriched developers who made contributions to his charitable foundation.
Larry Campbell (2002–2005)
Former mayor Larry Campbell played a pivotal role in 2004 in having a moratorium on slot machines lifted in Vancouver.
Campbell, now a senator, also cast the deciding vote allowing the one-armed bandits at Hastings Park.
In 2008, the Straight reported that less than three years after leaving the mayor's office, Campbell had joined the board of the proponent, Great Canadian Gaming Corp.
The previous year, Great Canadian directors were paid between $75,000 and $142,000 and were also granted stock options.
There are no rules in the Vancouver Charter preventing former municipal politicians from joining boards of companies that they might have helped while in office. So Campbell did not do anything illegal.
Philip Owen (1993–2002)
Former mayor Philip Owen was a director and secretary-treasurer of Central Heat Distribution Ltd., which was sued by the City of Vancouver in 1999.
The city and the company had an accounting dispute over how royalties should be accounted for—with the city claiming that it had been shortchanged by $1.5 million.
At the time, Owen owned 2.3 percent of the shares, according to documents filed at the B.C. Utilities Commission. He quit as an officer and director in 2001.
The company had introduced a "fuel-cost adjustment" to justify paying the city less money for laying its pipes on city property, but a city lawyer claimed at the time that this wasn't permitted under a contract.
Owen never voted on any matters involving Central Heat. However, he did vote on rezoning applications in the downtown core, which had the potential to generate more revenue for Central Heat if these new buildings were hooked up to its system.
Gordon Campbell (1986–1993)
Gordon Campbell decided to turn over $48 million worth of city land at a deeply discounted price to a company called VLC Properties Ltd., which was headed by his friend Jack Poole and owned by union pension funds.
In return, VLC Properties promised to develop rental housing on those sites. The company, which later became known as Concert Properties, pledged to build 2,000 rental units a year, but that goal was never achieved.
This caused a rupture within the NPA caucus when then-councillor and lawyer Jonathan Baker went public with his concerns, questioning the legality of the whole enterprise.
Jonathan Baker's solution
Baker has since mended fences with the NPA, rejoining the party last year after a lengthy absence.
He also offers lots of lively commentary on his blog about municipal law and political issues.
In a post last month, he noted that "conflicts of political interests are treated as the norm".
"It is not an offense for a councilor to vote on a matter that involves a significant contributor to a politician’s campaign as long as the donation to the party or individual has been disclosed," Baker wrote.
He then added this caveat, which should be posted on a huge billboard outside Vancouver City Hall for the public to see: "The law engages the legal fiction that an incumbent politician does not have a direct or indirect pecuniary economic interest in remaining in office. This enables a form of systemic corruption. It has become wide spread and corrosive on every continent and all countries are trying to deal with it one way or another."
He went on to write that the recently approved West End plan and the Vancouver budget "are open invitations" to payoffs.
"I would favour the creation of an independent municipal tribunal that deals with issues of ethics," Baker added. "Whenever one of these questions arises as to whether a proposed vote or other action complies with the conflict of interest regulations, a Councilor could request a prompt decision as to whether he may vote or participate in the matter or whether he is in a conflict and should step down."
This seems a lot less cumbersome than forcing a citizen to take the mayor to court for what some might deem a "political" conflict of interest as opposed to a "pecuniary" conflict of interest.
After all, how much "pecuniary" interest can there be in receiving a HootSuite tote bag?