A recent decision by the province’s Court of Appeal will have wide ranging effects on the participation of elected officials as board members and directors of non-profit societies around the province.
On Jan. 13 the court overturned a Supreme Court decision in the Schlenker v. Torgrimson case and the result according to third vice president of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) Al Richmond is significant.
“I think it is going to be profound on councillors, directors and chairs of boards and councils, particularly in small communities where community leaders are quite often appointed to community groups to provide local government perspective and who are appointed sometimes because of funding to help them do their tasks,” Richmond said.
The decision means that when elected officials like town councillors and the mayor also sit as directors of a non-profit society they are in a conflict of interest when they vote or participate in matters related to that society. That conflict is considered to be pecuniary in nature, found the court, and therefore disqualifying when the local government matter relates to money or financial benefits.
Richmond said it is particularly difficult in smaller communities as political leaders are often also sitting on boards like local food banks that also receive funds from the municipal government. Other examples include groups that receive grants or other fees for service from the municipal government.
The issue came up at last month’s Squamish-Lillooet Regional District board meeting.
“There are very serious implications involved here … in terms of our own appointments to various boards and societies,” said director of administrative services Peter DeJong, who suggested the board take a cautious approach toward committee appointments as a result because the interpretation of the ruling will be tricky.
For the SLRD, committees identified as affected by the court decision are: the Bridge River Valley Economic Development Society, Fraser Basin Council and the Southern Interior Beetle Action Coalition.
The Lillooet Library Board and Pemberton Library Board and the Lillooet Community Partners Resource Group remain unaffected.
The board made a motion to forward its concerns to the UBCM, as it felt the issue affects literally every local government in B.C.
Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who is also a lawyer, said the area of law involved in the decision is an evolving one.
“Instead of a conflict of interest it is almost like a conflict of duty because people who tend to be on municipal councils are for the most part community-minded people who are also involved in other non profit societies and especially in small communities there are only so much of us to go around,” she said. “It is something we will be looking at carefully and figuring out if there are steps we have to take to avoid the ramifications of this case.”
In Whistler local elected officials sit on Whistler Animals Galore, Whistler Arts Council, Whistler Museum and Archives Society, the public library and Whistler Community Services Society boards — all of which receive funds from the municipality.
Richmond said because the change in definition of conflict of interest came as a result of a court case there is no ability for either the province or the UBCM to intervene at this time.
However, he said the UBCM will sent out a notice to all members this week regarding the decision and seek input at the board level before deciding how to proceed.
“It is a far-reaching decision and I am not sure the court realized the severity of what they are suggesting and the impacts,” he said. “We will wait to hear more from our members and wait and see what opportunity there is for us to assist.”