British Columbia·Analysis

Conflict of interest — the hot-button political issue in Metro Vancouver

There have always been rules around conflicts of interest in B.C. politics, but at the city level restrictions are usually confined to the possibility of direct financial benefit.

A new wave of leaders are worried about real or perceived financial connections

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, shown outside Vancouver City Hall on Thursday, was one among a record number of new mayors and councillors elected last election. Many campaigned on themes of transparency and accountability. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Is your local politician under the influence?

No, it's not about what's in a councillor's body. It's about the opinions in their heads and how outside money and groups might be influencing them. 

Increasingly, there are motions in B.C. city halls to reveal those connections to the public through stronger conflict of interest or disclosure rules. 

Last week, the District of North Vancouver argued about whether councillors should have to disclose any donations they got from employees of development companies, or their relatives, when votes affecting that company come up. The motion is expected to come up for a vote soon.

A precedent-setting motion by a District of North Vancouver councillor on disclosing donations from developers was deferred earlier this month. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

This week, Richmond debated whether councillors should have to disclose what property family members own — including brothers and sisters — when they run for office. The motion passed.

And the day after, Vancouver Coun. Colleen Hardwick said she's planning a motion to ensure public hearings can't be influenced by people outside the city or people with undisclosed ties to development projects.

There have always been rules around conflicts of interest in B.C. politics, but at the local level restrictions are usually confined to direct connections and the possibility of direct financial benefit.

But that's changing.  

"I'm frequently told that this is a billion-dollar entity, because of the land holdings and budget and capital programs and everything that we do," said Coun. Kelly Greene who presented the motion in Richmond.

"We need to hold ourselves to those high standards so that people can have the utmost confidence that they are getting an unadulterated decision at the council table."

Richmond city council recently debated whether councillors should have to disclose what property family members own — including brothers and sisters — when they run for office. The motion passed.

Why is it happening?

The reasons for the surge of municipal interest in new transparency rules is fairly straightforward.

First, concerns over where money is coming from — and who a candidate may be connected to — are growing across the political world. 

But Metro Vancouver also had a record turnover of mayors and councillors last election and many of the newly elected campaignied on themes of transparency and accountability. 

"A lot of new ideas ... are being sent to councils right across the region," said Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie who voted against Greene's motion because he says the current rules are working.  

"There's lots of good debate as to what would be appropriate on issues like transparency, disclosure and lobbying."

Frank Leonard, the former mayor of Saanich and chair of the Capital Regional District and president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM), says it's normal for new politicians to demand change.

"A lot of people my age retired and a lot of people younger than me have just come in. And I think that generation wants to set their own standard," he said. 

"The only thing that's certain about the status quo is at some point it'll change and the standards will rise." 

What's wrong with more transparency?

There are a few possible pitfalls for municipalities seeking to create new transparency rules. 

One is disagreement over how extensive new disclosures should be. District of North Vancouver Mayor Mike Little wondered whether including family members of employees of development corporations was too broad. And several Richmond councillors said forcing their sisters and brothers to reveal financial information was inappropriate.  

District of North Vancouver Mayor Mike Little wondered whether including family members of employees of development corporations was too broad. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

But another is an element of realpolitik. Longer-serving politicians might feel attacked by inferences that they benefited from the old system.

"It seems some people in the last election ran on the fact that council was crooked, but nobody would come out and tell me that I was crooked," said Richmond Coun. Bill McNulty who opposed Greene's motion.

In the end, after some testy debate, Greene's motion passed 5-4. But because it's a provincial matter, the motion now goes on the agenda of the UBCM convention in September. A convention, it bears noting, where there's a controversy over whether a reception hosted by the Chinese consulate should go ahead.

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.