Ethics expert Duff Conacher cites holes in City of Vancouver conflict rules
A Canadian expert in political ethics says he doubts any judge will throw Mayor Gregor Robertson out of office even though there may be an appearance of a conflict of interest in him voting in 2012 along with the rest of council in granting a city lease to HootSuite Media Inc.
Duff Conacher, founding director of Democracy Watch and consulting adjunct professor of law at the University of Toronto, told the Straight by phone that Robertson received a benefit from the social-media company when it hosted an electronic Twitter town-hall for him shortly before the 2011 municipal election.
“I don’t know what the value is,” Conacher said. “It’s use of property, maybe staff time. It should all be counted.”
A mayoral candidate for the Cedar Party, Glen Chernen, and nine others filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court on February 14 alleging that Robertson violated the conflict-of-interest section in the Vancouver Charter in connection with the city leasing a former Vancouver Police Department building to HootSuite Media.
Under the Vancouver Charter, the only penalty for any politician violating this section is loss of office.
The law states that politicians cannot participate in any discussions or vote on any matter in which they have a pecuniary interest.
In addition, the Vancouver Charter states that politicians cannot participate or vote in matters where there is “another interest in the matter that constitutes a conflict of interest”.
On this latter point, Conacher said that Robertson had “another interest” in connection with HootSuite Media, though it didn’t fall under the category of “pecuniary”. Despite this, Conacher doubts that Robertson will lose his job.
“A court will never find anyone guilty of violating these measures because it means a judge kicking out a democratically elected leader,” he said.
He emphasized that there should be a sliding set of penalties under the Vancouver Charter so that judges have options other than applying the ultimate penalty of loss of office.
Conacher also said that another shortcoming in the law is that it doesn’t define what constitutes nonpecuniary conflict of interest. Therefore, he suggested that Robertson could defend himself by claiming that the Vancouver Charter’s silence on this matter should let him off the hook.
Conacher stated that it’s irrelevant how much HootSuite Media paid on its lease. The real issue is whether or not Robertson should have participated in discussions involving any party with which he has an interest.
“Conflict-of-interest [legislation] is to ensure you’re not in a position to return a favour,” Conacher said.