Watchdog group says province should strengthen disclosure rules for local politicians

Integrity B.C. says the province should look at strengthening disclosure laws for local politicians following a conflict at Vancouver city council last week.

Councillors may financially benefit from decisions their governments make — so long as it's disclosed

All four NPA councillors left Vancouver council chambers this week during a discussion about conflict of interest. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Integrity B.C. says the province should look at strengthening disclosure laws for local politicians.

"It's probably the loosest in the country," said Dermod Travis, executive director of the non-partisan watchdog group.

"If there was more disclosure on the part of council members, once elected, as to what their financial holdings are, I think that addresses a good chunk of the problem."

Travis made the suggestion after a walkout this week by opposition Vancouver councillors after a motion related to conflicts of interest. 

Right now, elected officials must disclose companies they own or work for, shares they hold in other companies, and land they own. 

But local politicians can still financially benefit from decisions their governments make — so long as they disclose the conflict in question, and abstain from voting if the decision in question requires council approval.

Failure to abide by these regulations can result in a number of penalties, including removal from council. 

Catering in Langley

The question of whether provincial legislation is too loose arose in two consecutive weeks in Metro Vancouver.

In the Township of Langley, Coun. Kim Richter put forward a motion that would disallow councillors or a business they own to bid on any municipal contracts.

It came after another councillor's catering business was hired for a farm tour, but the motion failed 5-3. 

"The community charter is very clear on the conflict of interest, and on members of council doing business with their municipality. It's a very transparent process," said Township of Langley Mayor Jack Froese, who said there was no need for the additional legislation.

Being a councillor is a part time job in virtually all of British Columbia, and Froese said he didn't want to dissuade business people from being part of local government. 

"There might a person in the municipality who does business in the municipality, and see that as a block for running for council. We want people running for council."

Lobbyists in Vancouver

In Vancouver, Coun. Andrea Reimer put forward a motion that would require councillors to list "potential conflicts of interest" if a company from which they receive income are "public relations firms, government relations firms, consultancies, holding companies of other entities which obscure pecuniary interest."

Reimer, a Vision Vancouver councillor, said the issue had been concerning her as the number of councillors in that situation increased — all of whom happened to be from the rival NPA. Reimer said partisanship wasn't behind her motion. 

"It's not that somebody is cheating or intentionally trying to mislead, but the act allows this grey area as the nature of how you disclose your financial interests," she said.

"The point of the act is quite clear, to ensure the public has full access to all the information they need to know about an individual's direct interests.

"I would argue if you're a lobbyist for [any] company, that company is as much a direct financial interest to you as if you worked for them directly."

Reimer's motion did not pass, but a followup motion to have the city's legal department explore what constitutes a conflict of interest did.  

Onus on local politicians

All four NPA councillors left council chambers during the discussion, saying they were in a conflict of interest, with George Affleck declaring Reimer's motion a "PR stunt."

"We have a code of conduct as councillor we must swear to, and all things covered in her motion are covered in the code of conduct," he said. 

Affleck said Reimer's motion could have been sparked by concerns that councillors wouldn't be truthful about declaring when they were in conflict. But he said that's never been the case for him.

"People have become skeptical as to how people make decisions. That's why they want transparency at every level, including financial transparency," he said.

"I know for me... I've declared those [conflicts] publicly, in the chamber, every time." 

Travis argued that if the legislation is vague enough that municipalities are considering additions, it needs strengthening.