Brandon’s city clerk’s office has now requested a legal opinion on whether Mayor Shari Decter Hirst has breached conflict of interest legislation with regards to the Strand Theatre project.
"We wanted some legal advice with respect to whether Her Worship was in fact, as head of council and a board member of Renaissance Brandon, in a conflict of interest position because she did not remove herself from meetings that involved the Strand project," deputy city clerk Heather Ewasiuk said on Wednesday. "Also, through her role as mayor, what her responsibilities are with pursuant to the Municipal Council Conflicts of Interest Act."
Ewasiuk said the legal opinion has not been sought by any councillor or by Decter Hirst herself, but was a directive from the clerk’s department to seek clarification, something that tends to come up "once or twice each term," on various issues involving Brandon’s municipal elected officials.
"Once we get that opinion, it will be shared with council," Ewasiuk said, noting that it will be up to city council to determine whether those findings are made public. "At minimum, councillors will receive a copy of it. Whether it will be brought up as an item of business at the council table, it’s yet to be seen."
Ewasiuk said the findings could be discussed in an in camera or secret council meeting, where it is determined no other discussion is required or further clarification could be sought.
"It depends on what the legal opinion is," Ewasiuk said. "There may or may not be a legal opinion to address."
When asked if she favoured a public release of the findings, Decter Hirst said: "Absolutely."
"They have been verbal opinions, rather than written opinions and I think they are waiting for the written opinion to come in," Decter Hirst added.
The decision to seek legal counsel comes after city clerk Con Arvisais told the Brandon Sun the following: "Because it wasn’t a matter dealt with by city council, there is no conflict of interest under the Municipal Council Conflict of Interest Act. The mayor is being attacked here, and being accused, but it wasn’t dealt with by council. This act, plain and simple, doesn’t apply."
It’s not yet known how long it will take for legal counsel to release its findings to council.
"They appreciate there is some urgency to this, and that this is something that’s hanging over that we’d like to get cleared up one way or the other," Ewasiuk said. "We are hoping in the next couple of days, but I don’t have any specific timeline."
Decter Hirst said she wants this issue to be cleared up as soon as possible.
"Our legal opinions that we’ve had to date say there is no conflict and decision making going forward, we’re going to ensure there is no conflict," Decter Hirst said. "This is a belt-and-suspenders approach, if you will, because it’s important the business of Renaissance Brandon carry forward without any impediments."
Decter Hirst said most of the Renaissance Brandon board members own property downtown, and that they look for people who have invested in and believe in the downtown area to get involved in the agency.
"By it’s nature, it’s like Centre Venture (Development Corporation in Winnipeg) and other downtown development kinds of entities," Decter Hirst said. "They are always aware of potential conflict of interest situations so we always are careful to make sure that aspect doesn’t interfere with progress going forward."
The city clerk’s office is not the only party that can request a legal opinion or court ruling on conflicts of interest allegations involving municipal officials.
Any elector, or person who has the right to vote in the affected municipality, can make a similar request by applying to the Court of Queen’s Bench. They will need to pay the filing fee and provide an affidavit to the court stating their allegation and what the potential issue is, Ewasiuk said.
If Decter Hirst is found to be in conflict of interest, city council could ask the Court of Queen’s Bench to make a ruling on the matter.
"The ultimate repercussions are, if someone is found to be in a conflict of interest where there is a direct or indirect pecuniary gain and haven’t declared it, there is a provision that the judge could disqualify them from council and declare their seat vacant," Ewasiuk said.
Ewasiuk added that the judge could also rule that the lack of disclosure was inadvertent and that there would be no penalty issued.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 17, 2012