A ban on the bottle may land one school trustee in hot water
There is a slow burning fire in New Westminster and no matter how much bottled water is thrown at it, the flames continue to shine brightly. The headlines in The Record and Newsleader newspapers this week were all about how a Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) staffer, who also happens to be an elected New Westminster school trustee, may be in a conflict of interest.
Left wing school trustee Lori Watt not only works for CUPE, but she reports directly to Barry O’Neil, the union’s most senior employee. As you may be aware, CUPE has been waging an all out war against bottled water over the last several years. They want it removed from vending machines in places like public schools. In her capacity as a school trustee, Watt has been leading the pack in championing this cause in New Westminster.
Watt is also facing some heat over her role as a CUPE employee and school trustee when it comes to negotiating collective agreements. There are some parents who feel having Watt sitting at the School Board table and being privy to its bargaining strategy with CUPE is just a bit too cozy. We've been unable to determine if Watt has ever recused herself from voting and/or debating on issues related to the NW School Board’s collective agreements with CUPE local 409.
Now a local parent and former Voice New Westminster school board candidate Patrick O’Connor has received a legal opinion from Blake, Cassels & Graydon which states Watt may be in a conflict of interest.
You requested our opinion regarding a potential conflict of interest on the part of Trustee Lori Watt regarding two matters which the Board of Education for School District #40 (the “Board”) expects to address shortly:
(1) approval of a new collective agreement with CUPE Local 409; and
(2) a motion to ban bottled water in School District #40 facilities.
In our opinion, Ms. Watt would be in conflict of interest in respect of both matters due to her employment with the B.C. division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (“CUPE BC”). If Ms. Watt votes on either matter, a court could remove her from office.
O'Connor outlines his concerns in a letter written to the New Westminster School Superintendent. CityCaucus.com caught up with O’Connor to find out why he’s pursing the issue of Watt and her role in attempting to ban bottled water and vote on budgetary issues related to CUPE.
It’s a clear conflict of interest from what I can see under the School Act for a trustee to be advancing or participating in anything to do with the monetary interests of their employer. Watt clearly doesn’t believe she is in a conflict, but my independent legal advice says otherwise.
In response, Watt is lashing out at O’Connor and even threatening to run again for a fourth term after previously deciding she was going to retire. She tells The Record:
This type of nonsense has me seriously considering running again. Here's the thing that's laughable. I told my family months ago I wasn't intending on running but Patrick O'Connor has frustrated me so much... This is a gentleman who has run unsuccessfully before. I'm a three-term trustee and this is a politically motivated attack.
Watt goes on to state:
I can read the School Act and I can say I'm not in conflict. I just find it incredibly frustrating that somebody like Mr. O'Connor would engage in such a malicious personal attack on me. He's attacked me for nine years now.
Perhaps Ms. Watt should look up what “personal attack” means in the dictionary. Having reviewed what O’Connor is alleging, it hardly looks “personal” at all. Rather, what I see is a concerned parent and community activist who is asking some tough questions of a local school trustee. In my opinion, Watt has failed to adequately address the issues of concern raised by O’Connor and I’m more apt to believe the law firm’s opinion over hers.
The legal opinion appears to clearly lay out why Ms. Watt should be concerned about a possible conflict of interest:
The interest of CUPE BC (and therefore Ms. Watt) in these matters is neither remote nor insignificant. Regarding the Local 409 contract, there is a substantial relationship between CUPE BC and its locals, similar to the relationship between the unions in the Wynja matter. Regarding the bottled water issue, CUPE BC’s public campaign against bottled water, Ms. Watt’s participation in that campaign, and her senior position with CUPE BC all demonstrate that her interest is publicly aligned with that of CUPE BC. If Ms. Watt votes on either matter, a court would probably remove her from office unless she can prove that she acted in good faith in reliance on a legal opinion. A further possible defence is “inadvertence”, but it is unlikely that a court would accept such a defence here. This is not a case where Ms. Watt is unaware of her connection to Local 409, or CUPE BC’s public position against bottled water.
It looks like O'Connor will continue to stir things up in New Westminster for a while yet. He's musing about taking this through the court system to test whether a judge would come to the same conclusion as the lawyers did. Meanwhile Watt seems so confident in herself that she appears ready to wage battle again in the upcoming civic elections in November.
- Post by Daniel