Nanaimo city councillors have up to $3,000 per year of taxpayers money to spend on seeking independent legal advice as to whether they are in a potential conflict of interest.
Council passed the reimbursement recommendation on Monday to ensure each member makes his or her determination with respect to conflict with the best possible advice and the most accurate information available.
Past practice was for council members to seek their own legal opinion at their own expense.
Douglas Holmes, assistant city manager, said in a report that council members, by their nature, are involved in the community in a number of different capacities in addition to their elected role, and the potential for conflict of interest is not remote and not always clear.
“As municipal remuneration is modest, it seems unfortunate to have to spend a significant portion of it to properly discharge a councillor’s duties should a potential conflict arise,” he said.
Mayor John Ruttan said the issue is far from cut and dry.
“I know people would say ‘well, I would certainly know if I’m in conflict or not’, but it’s not always that easy to identify,” he said. “You get into some really grey areas and people need to understand there is a massive cost to the city every time an issue of conflict arises or potentially arises. I don’t think the [$3,000] is onerous because it would cost a great deal more than that from the city alone if it escalates into litigation.”
Ruttan calls it a learning exercise for council and the responsibility is still on each member to be aware of any potential conflicts.
“If they feel there is a perception of conflict, declare it and step aside. It’s just one vote,” he said. “It’s difficult after the fact to change things around.”
In 2011, Coun. Bill Bestwick spent more than $14,000 defending himself from conflict of interest accusations.
Bestwick voted in favour of allowing Boston Pizza a variance for an LED sign. At the time, Bestwick was coach and general manager of the Nanaimo Clippers junior A hockey team, which Boston Pizza sponsored.
The issue cost taxpayers $12,800. Bestwick was reimbursed $10,000 for lawyer fees while the city incurred $2,800 in legal costs.