Chris Bryan weighs in on dueling legal opinions regarding conflict of interest
CityCaucus.com has been documenting the ongoing debate in New Westminster regarding whether school trustee Lori Watt has been in a conflict of interest. We're pleased to re-publish an editorial running in the New Westminster Newsleader which we thought our readers would find of interest. A special thanks to editor Chris Bryan who allowed us to this cross post this on our blog.
New West school trustee Lori Watt and fellow resident Patrick O’Connor have recently updated the old “my dad is better than your dad” schoolyard taunt.
The only difference is they’re comparing lawyers.
If you’ve been following this issue, you’ll know that O’Connor came out a few weeks ago with a legal opinion saying trustee Watt shouldn’t be voting on certain issues at school board meetings.
Instead, she should remove herself from debate on issues that dovetail with the interests of her employer.
Watt works for the political arm of CUPE BC, as the confidential secretary to president Barry O’Neill. CUPE BC, through its locals, represents many of the people employed by the New Westminster School District. It also represents about 170 locals across B.C.
Last week, Watt got her own legal advice saying no conflict exists.
So one can assume Watt will continue to vote on matters such as whether the school district should ban bottled water in schools, an issue that CUPE BC has spearheaded in the region.
She is also clear to vote on issues that will affect school district support staff who belong to a CUPE local, for instance.
It’s an interesting situation. At night, as a school trustee, she represents the employer, SD40. And by day at CUPE, she works for the organization that fights for the interests of the employees.
Watt’s legal opinion notes that she is a “relatively low level” employee for CUPE, not someone with her hands on the levers of power. It also points out she is not directly involved in any bargaining. And Watt herself has said that she has never been asked to vote a certain way on an issue, nor have any school district issues come up for discussion.
A few things are known, of course. For one, Watt is a three-term trustee who has dedicated many hours of her life to public service.
What’s also known is that $4,697.44 of the $4,822.44 she spent getting elected in 2008 came from a CUPE group. The majority, $3,000, came from CUPE BC itself.
And, according to O’Connor, her claim that she’s never been asked to vote a certain way by her employer rings false.
He points to a 2008 article on CUPE BC’s website where it says that CUPE BC’s political action committee screened potential school board candidates by asking “his or her position on P3s, contracting out, pay equity, and other important issues. If the candidates don’t know where they stand... CUPE has lots of information to help them.”
That’s not unusual for candidates seeking union endorsement. CUPE wants to ensure they represent CUPE values. That’s fine.
But it gets muddy fast.
As an employee, she works for CUPE. As a trustee, Watt is endorsed by CUPE. And she’s also in a position to decide the fate of CUPE employees.
The question is: How free is she to represent the employer’s (read SD40) interest?
The lawyers can say what they want.
Ultimately, so too may the Supreme Court of B.C., if O’Connor chooses to take it that far.
But what really matters is public opinion.
Conflict of interest legislation is about maintaining the public’s faith in the politicians who serve them, that they are free of undue influence.
And the true test is this: What would an average, fair-minded person think when given the facts about Watt’s situation?
To me it’s clear. In some cases, Watt should stand aside.
To reach Chris, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow the New Westminster News Leader on Twitter @NewWestNews