British Columbia judge dismisses claims of conflict against Vancouver city councilor

BC Supreme Court Justice John Steeves ruled that a Vancouver Green Party adviser Michael Wiebe was not in a conflict of interest when he voted on the temporary patio program of the city, despite its interests in two companies that would benefit from it.

Kerry Gold / The Globe and Mail

A BC Supreme Court judge ruled that a Vancouver councilor did not have a conflict of interest when he voted on the city’s temporary patio program, even if he had interests in two companies that would benefit from it.

Judge John Steeves’ ruling concluded that while Green Party adviser Michael Wiebe had a financial interest in the patio issue, he had it in common with many others and therefore was not in conflict when he voted.

“There is no evidence that he asserted a personal interest in him in the sense of being distinct from other restaurant and bar owners,” the judge wrote.

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But the Vancouver constituency group that launched the original lawsuit against Mr Wiebe plans to challenge the ruling, saying it sets a disturbing precedent by giving city councilors permission to vote on almost any issue, even if they have a conflict and could personally benefit from it.

Lawyer Wes Mussio, who has advocated for the group that filed a lawsuit, said Judge Steeves’ ruling goes beyond what other council’s conflict rulings have done.

“This means councilors can vote on anything,” Mr Mussio said, due to the judge’s ruling that an adviser is not in conflict unless there is evidence that only they would benefit, not the others. “It really opened the door for councilors to vote on matters where they have a pecuniary interest.”

He said this could mean that an advisor with an Airbnb suite can vote for (or against) new rules for vacation rentals, just like someone who lives in a 300-unit building that could be dezoned and become much more valuable.

If Mr Mussio’s group continues the fight, it will mean more months of uncertainty for Mr Wiebe, who at this point is unsure how his big bill will be covered.

He said he was extremely relieved by the ruling, which was released on Monday.

“This last month has been very difficult,” said Mr. Wiebe.

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“It’s bigger than my case. Rather, it was about how it was going to set a precedent. “

Mr Wiebe said the move was welcome among others he knows in the Vancouver business community who are considering running for the board, but fear they may be unable to advocate for changes without being skewered by a charge of conflict of interest.

He also said he believes he and future advisers would be better protected against accusations of conflict due to a new process the city has put in place that allows them to call an integrity official to find out s ‘they should be able to vote on an issue.

Mr Wiebe’s attorney said the ruling helps clarify the rules.

“This ruling recognizes and affirms the balance in the law that allows councilors to use their valuable experience in relation to an industry, or ‘community of interest’, appropriately, while also ensuring that the vote does not does not create a particular pecuniary interest that is unique to the advisor, ”said Aurora Faulkner Killam.

Mr Wiebe voted last spring with the majority of councilors to create a fast-track process to authorize new street and sidewalk patios to help bars and restaurants cope with restrictions linked to the pandemic.

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One of Mr Wiebe’s restaurants, Eight 1/2, was among the first 14 to be licensed, although more than 400 were ultimately issued.

He had always maintained that he had not obtained any particular advantage, since he was working for many companies – including several of his direct competitors in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood – so that they could set up a temporary patio. .

He also said he had received advice from the city leadership that he could vote because he had a common interest with others. However, he was unable to provide proof, and emails from the city manager presented in the case indicated that he had been advised to consult an outside lawyer.

None of his fellow advisers from any of the other three parties criticized his vote and, in fact, many publicly supported him.

But Michael Redmond, who had volunteered with the Nonpartisan Association, a longtime center-right party that nearly won control of the council in the last election, has filed a complaint with the city.

The city appointed a lawyer to assess the complaint, and the lawyer concluded that Mr Wiebe was in conflict because he had voted on an issue where he had a vested financial interest, even though it was shared with a few hundred others.

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When Mr Wiebe did not resign and the council did not call for his resignation, a group of voters – many, but not all, affiliated with the NPA – took the case to court. . Mr. Mussio served on the board of directors of the NPA.

There have been numerous lawsuits in British Columbia with allegations of councilors voting on matters they have a conflict of interest on, but very few have been successful. The province and the courts have generally set the bar high for what constitutes conflict.

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