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Elected officials seek resolution of conflict concerns

Court ruling suggests local politicians who serve on non-profit boards could be barred from office



Elected officials in Whistler and the rest of the Sea to Sky corridor are puzzling over the implications of a B.C. Court of Appeal ruling last month that states elected officials may be in conflict of interest if they serve as directors for non-profit societies.

The case arose when two elected trustees of the Salt Spring Island Local Trust Committee, also active directors of environmental non-profits, voted in favour of funding decisions by the committee to the non-profits. Neither of the trustees disclosed their involvement with the non-profits. A group of local electors brought forth a petition contesting the trustees' behaviour.

The B.C. Supreme Court originally dismissed the petition, stating the trustees did not violate the Community Charter by their actions, but the Court of Appeal reversed this decision on Jan.13.

The decision has potential for causing wide-sweeping changes to community involvement in non-profits across B.C., including societies and corporations. Elected officials who do not comply could be barred from holding office.

This does not impact various library boards in the region, which fall under the B.C. Library Act.

In Whistler, elected councillors are on several important governing boards in the community. For example, Roger McCarthy sits on Tourism Whistler's board, while Andree Janyk is the RMOW representative on the Whistler Chamber of Commerce board. Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden is on the Whistler Arts Council's board and Jack Crompton is on the board of the Whistler Museum.

Doti Niedermayer, the executive director of the Whistler Arts Council, said in Wilhelm-Morden's case she is an ex-officio member who has no vote on the council's proceedings.

"For us, what's really helpful is to have Nancy as an individual, because of her community involvement, because she's a lawyer, because of her knowledge of community development. She was on the board before she was mayor," Niedermayer said.

Having an elected official involved on the arts council's board helps to more easily communicate what is happening in arts and culture at the resort to the RMOW, said Niedermayer.

"Our board is really well versed in conflict-of-interest issues," she added. "I get the problem that occurred, but how do you otherwise communicate with these elected officials who are making these important decisions? The situation is a two-sided coin for sure."

In an interview, Wilhelm-Morden said she was also on the boards of the Whistler Development Corporation and Whistler Housing Association but did not think her involvement with them would be affected by the ruling. But she did note that councillors were involved in groups as diverse as Whistler Animals Galore and the Whistler Community Services Society.

She said the ruling is particularly hard for smaller communities. "People who are elected representatives are community minded, so this is a difficult decision."

She said RMOW staff is looking at the ruling to determine their response.

Patricia Heintzman, chair of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and a Squamish councillor, said she was on the board of Squamish's homeless support group, The Helping Hands Society, but left in September prior to the ruling. She was unhappy she had to always recuse herself from District of Squamish council votes on homeless issues and was concerned about any perceived conflict-of-interest.

"In some communities, often the elected officials are leading the charge for not-for-profits," Heintzman said. "Removing that energy when elected officials are forced to leave means losing the leadership, the drive, the networking and contacts and the skills base."

Heintzman said the likely way to move this forward is for the provincial government to step in and change or clarify the current legislation on conflict-of-interest. The SLRD is sending a letter outlining its concerns to the provincial government in the hopes of encouraging a legislated solution.

Wilhelm-Morden said the RMOW "might consider a letter" as well.

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