TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN
Murray Couling and Tara Martin with In the Company of Friends speak with Mayor Shari Decter Hirst during a Coffee with the Mayor community event at Mum’s Family Restaurant overlooking the Wheat City Golf Course on Wednesday.
"According to the ‘logic’ of the more nasty voices in this saga, you would have to not own property, not work and conceivably not even live in Brandon to be free of a ‘conflict of interest.’"
— former city councillor, Bdn. East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell
While our mayor may have made a misstep last year, I think it’s time some of her critics stop running around with their hair on fire over it.
And with all the major files Shari Decter Hirst is juggling at the moment — issues that could chart a new and promising course for Brandon — far too much attention is being paid to something that is only of enduring interest to her political enemies.
To recap, here’s just a few of the major projects Decter Hirst, council and city staff are working on:
• Number crunching for Canada Games. The deadline for Brandon’s bid to host the 2017 Canada Summer Games is July 30. It’s crucial that Brandon is named host city, as it could mean a significant cash injection to the economy, national exposure for our community and many expensive legacy projects built for us mostly with other people’s money, including upgrades to the Sportsplex pool.
• A proposed casino project for Brandon remains alive after discussions Thursday between the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Brandon city officials and the Tribal Councils Investment Group resulted in a request for further talks. A meeting with the chiefs is never playing to an easy room, but Decter Hirst and the Brandon delegation secured a promise from AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak for another full-day meeting. Brandon is finally approaching the casino issue in a logical way, looking only at the business case. If it makes sense for us and the AMC, we’ll soon have one of the fun money-makers in city limits.
• And next week, Decter Hirst is leading a delegation to Calgary to argue Brandon’s case to be included in WestJet’s plans to set up a regional airline. Brandon is one of dozens of communities asked to make a presentation. Each has just 30 minutes. Regular air service is crucial to the city’s plans for growth and economic expansion.
Add to all that flood watches being issued by Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation recently after persistent heavy rains. While the Assiniboine River is on the rise in Brandon, it’s not expected to spill over the top.
But upstream on the Assiniboine, near the Shellmouth dam, the river has already reached flood stage and a flood warning remains in effect. So it does nothing but bring back anxious memories of the historic flood that swept through this area one year ago.
That’s why we need to help our mayor, council and city staff focus on what’s important for the future of the city.
In an effort to offer readers some commentary on the conflict of interest issue that came to a head earlier this month, I did some research this past week.
First some background:
• In mid-May, the city clerk’s office sought legal advice with respect to the issue of whether Decter Hirst was in a conflict of interest because she participated in Renaissance Brandon meetings last year about the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society’s Strand Theatre redevelopment project.
• Decter Hirst’s husband, Dr. Derry Decter, was the treasurer with the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society, the group that is behind the Strand Project. The couple also owns property across from the Strand building, specifically 126 10th St., according to Decter Hirst’s filed declaration of assets at Brandon City Hall.
The majority of city council voted recently to allow her to continue her mandate after the politicians received a verbal legal opinion on whether she was in a conflict of interest.
Here are the key passages from a statement issued by city hall:
• "After careful consideration of legal advice provided by the City of Brandon’s solicitor and all available facts, Brandon city councillors have decided they will not instruct the city clerk to seek a declaration from a Court of Queen’s Bench justice regarding recent public concern of conflict of interest."
• "Council accepts that actions undertaken by the mayor which may have been a breach of the Municipal Councils Conflict of Interest Act were not done with any improper motive and were an honest error in judgment, committed unknowingly or through inadvertence."
Council decided it would not pursue conflict of interest charges against Decter Hirst.
And as the Sun accurately reported, deputy mayor Murray Blight said that city councillors did so because Decter Hirst’s actions surrounding the Strand Theatre were an "honest error in judgment."
However, the Victoria Ward rep then misspoke on a local radio station when he said: "Yes, there was a conflict of interest, but did it necessarily mean we have to pursue? We felt that it wasn’t necessary to do so."
He told me this week that what was printed in the Sun was correct, but he misspoke during the radio interview. And unlike in a newspaper, you can’t just print a correction once a radio story is broadcast.
Blight’s quote has been used by the mayor’s critics to fan the flames of the fires in their hair.
But since the quote is wrong, then any commentary or further allegations extrapolated from that quote are fruit from a poisonous tree and can’t be accepted.
Another statement that has been developed and repeated without question in various forums was that the mayor, who sits on the Renaissance Brandon development corporation board, was part of the decision-making process in the spring of 2011 to contribute $100,000 toward the stabilization of the Strand building after the collapse of the Brown Block.
Landmark Cinemas also agreed to contribute $100,000 toward that work at that time.
Problem is, the mayor says she wasn’t at that meeting.
In a subsequent Ren Brandon meeting where a further contribution of $18,000 was sought toward stabilizing the Strand building, Coun. Len Isleifson (Riverview) was quoted by a Brandon Sun columnist as stating it was he who led the charge against approving further funding.
As for the mayor? "She really didn’t say much at all about it. She just kind of sat there," Isleifson was quoted as saying in the August column.
So while I agree with those who believe the mayor should have fully recused herself from Ren Brandon meetings when the Strand was on the agenda, it doesn’t appear she engaged in a heckuva lot of lobbying. (Although it would be nice if the Ren Brandon meeting minutes were available to the public.)
The Sun has previously suggested in an editorial that our mayor came into office perhaps a little too big for her newfound political britches and that she has been taken down a notch or two by this whole controversy.
Which isn’t a bad thing.
She received a very firm slap on the wrist. And I just don’t see any reason to take it any further.
As the Sun has said, there was no damage to the city itself, no loss incurred by any group or citizen. There were no pockets lined, no brown envelopes exchanged.
But some changes to the way the city does business are needed going forward.
One of the problems is with the original structure of the Renaissance Brandon downtown development corporation’s 10-member board, which required the mayor, two councillors and seven members from the community.
Ren Brandon, as its materials state, was granted authority from the City of Brandon in 2007 to conduct activities related to downtown business development such as the ownership of property, granting of loans, establishment of incentive programs and retention of proceeds from investments.
The first politicians to sit on the board were mayor Dave Burgess, along with councillors Vince Barletta and Doug Paterson. The current pols on the Ren Brandon board are Decter Hirst, along with councillors Isleifson and Corey Roberts (Rosser).
Problem is, as Ren Brandon was touted as our version of Winnipeg’s hugely successful CentreVenture Development Corporation, it wasn’t set up with the same structure.
CentreVenture has Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz listed as its honorary chair, but the board itself — including the working chairperson — has no elected officials. Mostly business people with an interest in developing the capital’s downtown.
I’m told changes are being considered to the Ren Brandon board structure. Good.
But if only it had been set up properly in the first place — by a former mayor who was really interested in downtown development, not one who insisted on keeping the new board in check — then we wouldn’t be in this pickle in the first place.
However, given what you’ve read here today, surely you’ll agree with me that it’s time for the city to work toward building its future, instead of looking to the past to throw rocks in the spokes of progress.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 23, 2012