Brandon City Council won’t pursue conflict of interest charges against Mayor Shari Decter Hirst.
Deputy mayor Murray Blight said Thursday that city councillors won’t seek a Court of Queen’s Bench probe because her actions surrounding the Strand Theatre were an "honest error in judgment."
The news came after a legal opinion, sought by the city clerk’s office, was presented verbally to councillors by the city’s legal counsel on Monday and a series of closed-door council meetings Decter Hirst was not invited to.
"We didn’t feel there was anything there that required us to move forward," said Blight, a retired police officer, after the meetings.
Decter Hirst was investigated for taking part in debates and decision-making activities regarding the Strand, both in her role as mayor and as a Renaissance Brandon board member.
Questions arose about Decter Hirst’s relationship with the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society — proponents of the Strand Theatre restoration project — after money from a $474,000 grant was allocated to the Strand. It was also noted that her family owns property near the proposed theatre project. Decter Hirst is married to Dr. Derry Decter, who was the BFMAS treasurer when the group applied for government grants for the project. Decter Hirst was not mayor at the time Renaissance Brandon initially pledged the $474,000 grant, but was in office and a member of Renaissance Brandon when some of that money was paid out during the Brown Block demolition project.
City clerk Con Arvisais said the conflict of interest allegation arose because of questions it may extend beyond decisions made during regular council meetings.
"How far does the law extend?" Arvisais asked. "That’s been, perhaps, difficult for members of council to follow, and it’s an area where we need as soon as possible to review how far that law extends beyond the council chamber when they sit on various boards and commissions."
In a press release issued by the city after councillors met Monday and Tuesday to discuss the case, Decter Hirst’s activities were deemed an "honest error of judgment, committed unknowingly or through inadvertence."
Blight said councillors have not requested an apology from Decter Hirst.
"Why would she need to?" Blight said. "There was no intent (to break the law)."
Decter Hirst described the situation surrounding the conflict of interest investigation as difficult.
"Any actions that I did undertake that may have been a breach were honest mistakes," Decter Hirst said. "People need to understand that I would never make a decision based on self-interest or personal gain for either myself or my family. My interest is only to serve the people of Brandon."
Arvisais said the legal opinion was presented to city councillors verbally instead of in writing, a verbal opinion is not unusual.
"We have had it both ways, and my concern was that I needed to hear from legal counsel and councillors needed to hear from legal counsel," Arvisais said. "A written opinion would have taken more time and the lawyer did a pile of research and was thorough. So I thought we should assemble council so they could hear it. There was certainly urgency to get this before council as soon as possible and there’s no advantage to wait for a written opinion."
Arvisais said he will not seek a written report on the legal opinion, not because the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act would apply to a written report, but because he "just doesn’t believe it would serve any purpose."
While city councillors won’t request a Court of Queen’s Bench review of the mayor’s activities, they have requested a review of city policies and regulations respecting appointments to commissions, boards and agencies and how far the conflict of interest law goes in governing the activities of councillors and mayors.
"I have property in the city, so if there is a pot hole in front of my property, and I am a councillor, I shouldn’t be there when the tender comes through," Arvisais said. "We need to be responsible and logical about this."
While a majority of councillors voted not to seek a Court of Queen’s Bench ruling, that doesn’t prevent any elector in the city of Brandon from paying a filing fee and seeking a ruling. The person making the request would need to file paperwork outlining the reasons why they believe the case should be heard by a justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench.
"It’s still open for anyone that wants to pursue it, if they throw in their $300 and go for it," Blight said.
At this point, there are no legal ramifications for Decter Hirst on the conflict of interest allegation. Whether there is political fallout from this investigation remains to be seen. Decter Hirst said the investigation has taken a personal toll on her and that it was difficult to deal with.
"I am very good at compartmentalizing issues and often I have to leave a difficult meeting and go meet with school children," Decter Hirst said. "You have to be able to put things aside. I wasn’t involved in (making) this decision so I was able to go on with the business of the city. But it took a personal toll because I believe so strongly in representing the people to the best of my ability. The concern that intent was compromised just was very hard on me."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 8, 2012