Saturday, November 19, 2011

Conflicts of Interest, or: Be Careful What You Wish For

There were a lot of raised eyebrows over conflicts of interest claimed by local politicians in the LRT decision. For example:

  • The driving force behind LRT, Regional Chair Ken Seiling, spent nearly a decade ramming LRT down our throats and then claimed a conflict just before the final debate. His children own property near the route, and they owned that property back when he was instrumental in choosing the route.
  • Regional Councillor Tom Galloway, who had seemed to be opposed to LRT but was reportedly under a lot of pressure from Seiling & co to support it, claimed a rather dodgy-sounding conflict: he works for the University of Waterloo, which has the proposed LRT running through it. After the main vote, Galloway decided that his conflict no longer applies.
  • Waterloo City Councillor Jeff Henry, an LRT supporter, decided to call conflict because he too works at UW - even though the decisions he could vote on were about the route through the uptown. Other councillors who work for UW didn't call a conflict. The uptown route was decided by just three Waterloo city councillors, with the rest in declared conflicts.

Despite our frustration about the councillors who called conflicts seemingly without needing to, I don't see how we can really complain. Regional and city council is a part time job paying barely $30,000 a year. Councillors have to pay their own fees just to get a legal opinion about conflict of interest, and in an iffy situation they would probably need at least two legal opinions to stay in the game. Imagine the legal fees if a councillor was charged with conflict of interest.

Several Ontario communities are adopting LRT, and every one has had such a lot of declared conflicts of interest that a subset of politicians is voting on the biggest expenditure of all time for their communities. The province has now decided to review its conflict of interest legislation.

Easing the conflict of interest rules is not the way to go. The Seiling example shows how easily even the current legislation can be abused - not that I have any evidence that he did abuse them, but the appearance is there. I did a little research about conflicts of interest during last year's LRT debate, and talked to a lawyer about it: it seems that even the current legislation is barely enforceable.

We don't want to hamstring politicians with legal fees or put them in situations where they could be penalized just for doing their job. At the same time, we don't want to open the door to shady characters who gain office for self-enrichment. The current legislation seems to strike a good balance.

The bigger issue is around how monumental decisions such as billion dollar LRT projects are decided. This was not the way to do it. We should have had a referendum. We should have had votes at city councils as well as regional council. We should have had real public education and a dialog about alternatives, rather than a shoddy and expensive PR job by regional staff. This sham didn't just happen in Waterloo Region: it happened all over the province. And it isn't just about the monumental burden it's putting on tax payers: it's about a fundamental change to our urban landscape.



glendy said...

Join the board. I did. Makes a world of difference. Hair or no hair.

glendy said...

dog or dead dog in a nice oak box on top of the bookshelf.

glendy said...

BTW: Say less.

glendy said...

Less IS more.

glendy said...

Oops, what part of "yappa" didn't I notice?