Conflict can be foggy

Qualicum Beach Coun. Anne Skipsey participated in a variance vote of council despite the fact she owns land nearby

As Qualicum Beach council rejected a variance for a house on Hoylake Road West, Coun. Anne Skipsey wondered aloud whether she should vote on the issue because she owns property across the lane.

She and her husband own, but don’t live in, a house “kitty corner” across the lane behind a property where the owners were applying for a development variance permit to build a house 0.5 meters (1.6 feet) over-height and 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) closer to the road than the required setback.

She recently said the question of a conflict on that vote didn’t come up before the Dec. 7 meeting, but she had spoken to town Chief Administrative Officer Daniel Sailland about conflict of interest in general in the past.

She said she understood the main questions to be whether or not there might be a pecuniary (financial) benefit or if she was the only one impacted. She didn’t feel either applied.

“I thought about it after and realized it wouldn’t have made a difference to the vote if I’d recused myself,” she added of the motion that failed four to one, with only Coun. Bill Luchtmeijer voting in favour.

During the meeting she said she wasn’t sure she was supposed to speak on the issue, but nobody said anything and she did speak of her concerns about the process. She said she was more concerned about the precedent of not listening to the Advisory Design Committee’s recommendations than about the specifics of the variance.

Sailland said he didn’t know Skipsey owned the property. Generally in those situations, he said, the councillor would approach him with questions; it wouldn’t be on his initiative.

“I don’t want to come across in the media saying anything’s been done wrong,” he said.

Mayor Teunis Westbroek said that he visited the property after the vote and realized that if she’d voted for the variance, the house would have moved away from her property, giving her property more privacy, suggesting she could have benefited from voting for it.

“I think this is quite different than some of the other cases I’ve seen come to council where councillors felt they had to step away because of a conflict or a perceived conflict. In Anne’s case it’s quite the opposite.”

“She voted the way she did on principle. Council voted to maintain and uphold our height restrictions and setbacks as prescribed in our local policies and bylaws. She could have perhaps been seen in her interest if she’d voted in favour of it,” Westbroek said, adding he felt she handled it admirably.

Conflict of interest rules are tricky.

About an unrelated previous situation, Parksville CAO Fred Manson said at the time that while there is the cut and dry issue of financial conflict — councillors should not vote on issues they have a financial stake in — there is also perceived conflict.

“There may be no conflict at all, but in that they’re neighbours, can a reasonably educated person think that a decision that (a councillor) makes… may be tainted.”

“One of the things that was drilled into me 30 years ago when I first got into this profession… you not only have to be squeaky clean, you have to appear to be squeaky clean,” Manson said.

In other words, he said, “can (s)he make a rational decision, or would a normal third party think that (s)he is not making a decision in the best interest of the city.”

The B.C. Community Charter, which lays out the municipal rules, is clear that it is a councillor’s responsibility to declare a conflict of interest, leave the room and never have any input into it. It says they are considered to be in conflict if they have a monetary interest, but says very little about perceived conflict.

“It’s drilled into our heads from the very first day at council,” said former Parksville mayor Ed Mayne, “there’s actual conflict and perceived conflict and at the end of the day they’re exactly the same thing.”

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