New Westminster is caught up in a web of controversy over possible conflict of interest
There is a major controversy brewing in New Westminster this week with links back to a recent Ontario court ruling. It all pertains to whether some of the New Westminster School District (NWSD) trustees are in a conflict of interest or not.
According to the Catholic Register, Toronto Catholic school trustee Oliver Carroll was recently stripped of his post and ordered to pay $50,000 in court costs as a result of being convicted of conflict of interest. Here was Carroll's reaction to the judge's decision:
There was some confusion as to where the line was and from the point of view of the court, you crossed over. I didn't understand where the line was. Fair enough.
Back on the left coast, the NWSD recently voted on their annual budget which may result in the layoff of 60 teachers and a number of unionized support workers. At the centre of a brewing controversy are trustees Brent Atkinson and Michael Ewen.
In the case of Atkinson, both of his daughters are teachers in New Westminster while Ewen has three members of his family on the district's payroll.
Voice New Westminster's Trustee Casey Cook also has a daughter who is a special education assistant for the NWSD. That is why Cook recently declared his conflict and stepped aside from any votes relating to the District's budget.
However, it would appear that neither of the other two trustees are in any mood to declare a conflict anytime soon. According to the New Westminster Record:
Ewen and Atkinson, who have both been on the board for almost three decades, denied that they were in a conflict-of-interest position.
Atkinson said he doesn't have pecuniary interest in his daughters' employment because he doesn't gain from their income.
Now, Ewen is saying he will wait and see what the district's lawyer says about whether he should vote on the budget at the board's next meeting on May 19, where the board is slated to vote on third reading of the budget.
The New Westminster Leader reports:
Both Ewen and Atkinson are still voting on all aspects of the budget. In a May 2 NewsLeader story, Atkinson questioned how he could be perceived as being in conflict if he voted in favour of the cuts. Ewen voted against the layoffs, and had attempted to put forward a motion that would have carried over the deficit.
By comparison in Toronto, the matter of conflict of interest was deemed to be clear. According to the Catholic Register:
On Feb. 6, Justice Jane Kelly ruled that Carroll had “committed a number of acts of conflict of interest” when he participated in discussions and votes on budget decisions in April and May of last year instead of declaring a conflict. Carroll was also chair of the board's budget committee.
Last May, Carroll introduced a budget motion and gave a statement to carry a $5.2-million deficit forward which would have prevented program cuts, including teacher layoffs. In an affidavit, the former chair said he understood that he couldn't participate in those discussions because of his daughter's employment as a teacher with the board. But, he added, “I did not understand that I could not participate in general budget discussions involving matters other than teacher layoffs.”
So, will the Ontario ruling on conflict of interest apply in New Westminster, or the many jurisdictions where relationships between elected officials and board staff may be called into question?
One person that hasn't been getting much attention in all of this controversy is NWSD trustee Lori Watt. Here is what the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union, Local 15 posted in a news release about her just prior to the last civic election in November:
OUR OWN LOCAL 15 MEMBER, CUPE employee LORI WATT, is seeking a third consecutive term in the position of School Trustee in New Westminster. We urge members to support Sister Watt, whose candidacy is also endorsed by the New Westminster and District Labour Council.
By day, Ms. Watt is paid by her employer, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), to fight tooth and nail to protect her brothers and sisters from layoffs. By night, she is expected to turn into a cost-conscious school trustee voting on budgets that determine whether any of her brothers and sisters might get laid off. Hmmm...those must be tough decisions for her to make indeed.
I can only imagine it would tough heading into work the next day after you've just voted in favour of laying off a hundred or so CUPE staffers. It may not be an official conflict of interest, but you can't help but think how complex these decisions must be for Ms. Watt.
Here is a list of major contributors to the Watt campaign:
- CUPE Local 1622 – $250
- CUPE Local 409 – $625
- CUPE Local 1816 – $250
- CUPE BC – $3,000
- CUPE Metro – $572.44
- New Westminster and District Labour Council – $312.91 in-kind for a phone bank
According to Watt's financial disclosure, she received a total of $4,822.44 in campaign contributions. She states the unions provided her with $4697.44 of that funding. Astonishingly, with the exception of one small in-kind contribution, the Watt campaign was completely paid for by Big Labour.
So as you can see, my hometown of New Westminster is now mired in what is likely going to boil over into a much bigger debate over the coming weeks. If the Ontario court ruling is considered, Atkinson and Ewen would likely have to declare a conflict and not vote. Only then can the public be assured there is no real or perceived conflict of interest.
That said, given that so many trustees have such close ties with employees of the district, it is hard to see how this current lot of elected officials are going to make it through a three-year term without a bucket load of conflict declarations.
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