Conflict of interest story continues to generate headlines

Post by CityCaucus.com Staff in

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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 editor@newwestnewsleader.com or you can follow the New Westminster News Leader on Twitter @NewWestNews

5 Comments

The conflict Watt is in is so egregious you could drive a truck through it.
The legal opinion that she paid for from
Baker & Co. is so flawed it is laughable.
The opinion is the laughing stock of the legal community.
Hats off to Chris Bryan for having the
conviction and cajones to take a well thought out position.

Yes it is an apparent conflict, but the people who voted in New West knew of her employment position , or could have if they were at all interested and still she won her seat. So, if all of this was known to the voters is her election wrong. After all, the people did speak.

An average, fair minded person would spare the expense of nit-picking lawyers and acknowledge the less-than-stellar optics of the situation, and in the name of integrity step recluse themselves during those debates concerning their employer.

Now if only we could find some average, fair-minded people to vote for.....

To bobh,
Your reasoning is simply not plausible.
Watt's conflict is not in the fact that she works for CUPE, it is in her refusal to leave the room when the interests of her employer come in to play.
Lot's of people have conflicts, they acknowledge them and leave the room.
NBD.
In this case, it is a classic illustration that campaign donations buys votes, let alone her employment conflict.
Not only is she a CUPE employee, but it appears from the reports that 97% of her campaign contributions came from CUPE. Why is it even remotely possible that she would stay in the room at contract and budget discussions?

Trustee conflict would be an issue if Boards had any decision-making ability. Luckily, one after another, those powers have been taken away from them due to incompetence or corruption. All funding decisions are made by the provincial government and everything else is covered by collective agreements imposed by the provincial government.

School boards are designed to spin their wheels uselessly on the sidelines while the grown-ups in Victoria make the important policy decisions. Any time spent dealing with Boards is time wasted. If you don't believe me, talk to Patty Bacchus.

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