As a news organization we are tasked with serving our community by providing accurate and newsworthy information to the best of our ability. Over the years, it has been and continues to be a responsibility that we take very seriously.
So when inaccurate information is put into the public domain that affects Westman, either by ourselves or other media, we are obliged to correct it when we can, for the record.
We believe this to be the case with a political column written by Brandon resident Deveryn Ross in a recent edition of the Winnipeg Free Press.
In his Thursday column, Ross alleged that Mayor Shari Decter Hirst is mired in a conflict of interest because, as head of the council and as a board member for Renaissance Brandon — which doles out funds provided by the City of Brandon to various downtown projects — she did not remove herself from meetings that involved the Strand Project.
Decter Hirst’s husband, Dr. Derry Decter, is 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.
“It is illegal for any member of a municipal council (including a mayor) to be present at a council meeting where a matter in which the council member, or a member of her family, has a direct or indirect pecuniary interest is being discussed,” Ross wrote, paraphrasing the Municipal Council Conflict of Interest Act.
That particular statement, in and of itself, is accurate. However, the act only applies to municipal decisions of council. And as Brandon city clerk Con Arvisais told the Sun on Friday, the Strand Project has never come before council.
“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,” Arvisais said. “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.”
As a City of Brandon employee, Arvisais acts as an adviser to councillors and the mayor over matters of conflict of interest.
“I have to remain objective. I can’t operate any other way. If things are getting a little dicey, I’ll do what I’ve done with councillors. I’ll say, ‘This is not good. You should not be sitting in at that meeting.’ I have no reservation. That’s my job. I’m not out to defend. I can’t.”
Arvisais says that while council approves funding under its budget approval process to Renaissance Brandon, council has no ability to specify which projects should be given funds. Those decisions are left up to the Renaissance board members. Much like the Keystone Centre board, for example, Renaissance Brandon is an incorporated entity, a separate body that does not fall under the province’s Conflict of Interest Act.
Arvisais pointed to Section 4(6) of the act to clarify his point.
“For purposes of this act, where a councillor (or mayor) is appointed to serve in his official capacity as a councillor on any commission, board or agency, the councillor shall be presumed not to have a direct pecuniary interest in the appointment and the councillor shall not be presumed, solely by virtue of that appointment, to have:
(a) an indirect pecuniary interest in a matter in which the commission, board or agency has a direct pecuniary interest; or
(b) an indirect pecuniary liability to another person or to a corporation, partnership or organization to whom or which the commission, board or agency has a direct pecuniary liability.”
While the organization bylaw of Renaissance Brandon requires the mayor to be a member of the board, she was not a mayor — thus not a member of the board — when then-members of Ren Brandon decided to provide $474,000 in funding to the Strand Project in May 2009. Decter Hirst became mayor in October 2010.
Ross further accused Decter Hirst of using her influence to try to induce the federal government to give millions of dollars to the society for the project “of which her husband is an officer and director.”
What Ross failed to mention is that Derry Decter is a volunteer with the organization, and as such receives no money for his work on the BFMAS board, which is in itself a non-profit organization.
As for questions of indirect financial gain from the mayor and her husband’s assets across from the Strand Project, Arvisais says there’s really no way to measure that, as several factors could potentially affect property values.
“Will the property values actually increase and be money in the pocket for Shari? Boy that’s pretty nebulous.”
For the record, when asked directly by the Sun on Thursday whether she was in any conflict of interest over any aspect of the Strand Project, Decter Hirst said no.
“No. I’m not benefiting in any way, financially, nor is my spouse,” she said. “This is merely another episode in the continuing series of ‘The mayor is a poopy-head.’”
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 12, 2012