Opinion – What is Conflict of Interest?

through the looking glass

By Marianne Curtis

The Webster’s Dictionary defines conflict of interest as “a conflict between the private interests and the official responsibilities of a person in a position of trust”.

In other words a conflict of interest occurs when a person’s individual or private interests differ from his or her professional responsibilities or obligations, such that it could lead to personal financial gain or advantage.

Lately, one municipality has seen more then its fair share of “conflict of interest” accusations. A few months ago, a councilor attempted to take a resident to court because that resident accused him of being in “conflict of interest” because he purchased a property at a municipal tax sale. While under the amended Municipal Act says that yes, that is a conflict, the sale in fact occurred prior to the amendment. The resident apologized and the case was dismissed.

This same councilor sat at the table and discussed a legal bill that he brought into council for payment for this case. Council approved the payment of the bill with that councilor still sitting at the table. He did not vote.

More recently, “conflict of interest” was accused of a different councilor in the same municipality. This time, this councilor owns a contracting company that is in the position of clearing snow and competing with other contractors in the municipality. The councilor says “no conflict” because he was in business prior to becoming on council but he would refrain from bidding for work.

A third councilor remained at the council table while his fellow councilors discussed and voted on a development permit that would bring a house trailer onto his property for the benefit of his son. He didn’t vote, but he did discuss.

Incidentally, the Reeve stepped away from the table and left the room, after carefully placing the Conflict of Interest Act on the table in front of him when a matter was discussed that he felt he was on conflict with.

Just from observing this one council meeting, I witnessed four instances of conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest. While the Reeve acted correctly in his instance, it is my opinion that according to the definition of “conflict of interest” the other parties did not. When these matters came across the table, the other three should have stepped away from the table and left the room.

It is little wonder that residents are coming forward and voicing concerns about how matters are dealt with but until the reeve stresses that his fellow councilors follow his example, I expect there will be many more accusations. Or until someone actually sits down and does more with the Conflict of Interest Act then bring it out when they run out of toilet paper.

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