Legal opinion on conflict of interest causing heartache

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

6 comments

bottled water watt.jpg
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
 

6 Comments

Look at the School Act, then look at the legal opinion. Everything else is smoke, purposely being thrown on the issue by Watt. She hould have gotten a legal opinion years ago when this first surfaced. That would have been the honorable thing to do.
Personal attacks? Hogwash.
Oh, poor me, please pity me, more personal attacks!!
It is time for this Trustee to resign, before she costs her district a pot full of money.
What a disgusting performance.

Let me understand this. The trustee in question works for CUPE. CUPE serves the interests of the CUPE workers who work for the school district. What part of conflict of interest does this person not get? Where are the checks and balances that ensure the public interest is being protected and everything is above board? How long has this situation existed in New Westminster?

The lady was fairly elected to a seat on the NW School Board. The electors were aware of or should have known of her work affiliation with the union, and the possibility for a conflict of interest. So what is the problem? If NW voters want their trustees to act independently of the union then they would have made other choices. I think the electors deserve what they get for making that choice.

WARNING TO ALL OFFICE HOLDERS WHOSE CAMPAIGNS HAVE LARGELY BEEN CONDUCTED BY AND PAID FOR BY PRIVATE AND SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS.
Read the legal opinion put forward regarding this case. If you have had one large contributor of money and resources, and affairs come forward regarding the interests of that contributor, you could be, if you do not get out of the chamber/room, in one s***load of trouble.
Let's get this baby to court and end all of the nonsense.

bobh says "electors were aware of or should have known of her work affiliation with the union".

Is bobh unaware that Watt's campaign lit (paid for by CUPE) billed her as an "independent" candidate?

Don't place the blame on the unknowing public. Time for some truth in advertising at election time.

It's been to court (Supreme Court of BC and Court of Appeal) and it's not just New Westminster. It was a province-wide conspiracy cooked up by that cutting-edge brains-trust, the cream of policy experts from the highest levels of the provincial NDP government and the BCTF. The plan was to massively violate what was then Section 5 of the School Act (dealing with conflict of interest) by infiltrating School Boards with trustees who were either members or members from a neighbouring district, or a close relative of a member, or a member of an affiliated union (e.g.Operating Engineers or CUPE)and then hope no-one would notice or object.

It's worth reading the (unanimous)decision in Wynja v. Halsey-Brandt et al (CA14560). If Wynja had introduced available evidence of the province-wide nature of the problem and the collusion between the parties, Boards across the province could have been dismissed and all there decisions reversed, charges could result and the political fallout would have destroyed the NDP government of the day.

Their solution was brilliant, worthy of Sir Humphrey Appleby: they reversed a founding principle of the party and imposed provincial bargaining under the aegis of the BC Public School Employers Assn. This removed yet another decision from the hands of notoriously corrupt and incompetent (and now compromised) local Boards and saved the Party in the bargain.

Of course BCPSEA, as intended, has been spinning its wheels (at public expense) on the sidelines ever since. All collective agreements in K-12 are imposed through legislation, not bargained collectively. The NDP government of the 90's put the sanctity of the collective bargaining process on hold and did so on three occasions. Disgraced former Premier Clark, before being forced to resign (as a result of being the subject of an RCMP criminal investigation), intervened in one personally, though married to a teacher. Since BCTF will never settle for anything less than total control, that's the only possible solution.

Total operating grants for public schools will be $4.828 billion next year, up 2.8 per cent from this year, mostly to fund a 2% salary increase and improved benefits. Per-pupil funding for students in K-12 will rise from $8200 in 2009-10 to an estimated $8301 for 2010-11, the highest ever.

Despite restraint and service cuts teachers have done OK with salaries and working conditions most taxpayers can only dream about. Mostly by elbowing all other stakeholders out of the way on their way to the money, no matter what it takes.

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