No such thing as perceived conflict of interest
It’s council orientation season in Alberta, and one of the most nuanced topics we cover is a councillor’s encounter with conflict of interest. In my mind, while the topic might have some shades of grey, there is a fundamental dichotomy between whether an elected official is in a conflict of interest or whether they are not. I don’t see any room for a ‘perceived’ conflict of interest – to wreck a Yoda quote, you are, or you are not, there is no in-between.
Conflict of interest – or pecuniary interest – involves money and whether the councillor benefits or suffers from how that money is allocated. While the conflict almost always runs the risk of benefiting the council member, there is also the possibility that the conflict will affect the councillor negatively – it just doesn’t happen very often.
The definition of conflict of interest varies from province to province, mainly on the understanding of what constitutes those who might benefit from the council member’s actions. The obvious ones are the council member themselves, their employer, and their nuclear family members. Some places get a bit more nuanced, with the benefit (or detriment) extending to people who share the same household as the council member. Regardless of who’s affected, the council member must stay above the debate and vote. I think every member of every council understands that the member who does have an actual conflict of interest must not participate in the debate or the vote, and for the most part, they ought to leave council chambers as well.
There is an exception to this. The member of council does not give up their rights as a citizen. If the councillor has a private interest in the issue at hand, they can participate if they do not occupy an elected office. Say, for example, the council member-owned some land that they wanted to subdivide. They obviously stand to benefit (or lose) from whether council allows the subdivision or not. The councillor can’t debate or vote on the topic, but they could recuse themselves and still appear as a delegation to council as an interested party. That’s the extent of it, though. No debating, no voting, and the councillor would have to leave their seat on the council bench to appear as a delegation in front of council.
Back to the concept of ‘perceived conflict of interest. This is a statement that doesn’t hold any water with me. The council member (or family, or employer) either does or does not benefit; there is no in-between. That line might be a thin one, but legal counsel can certainly help guide that understanding. Speaking of which, the legal counsel is best when it is the councillor’s own counsel, not the municipality’s lawyer. Getting an independent legal opinion really helps the council member, even though there is a cost associated with it.
I see council members claiming perceived conflict of interest regularly, and I wonder if it’s just a convenient way of avoiding going on the record as being for or against something that might be contentious or that might ‘look’ like that council member is meddling where they ought not to be meddling. There may be political benefit from suggesting that one wants to recuse themselves from debate and vote, where they really should be involved. I tell councillors that if all debates and votes were easy and straightforward, only one council member has to be there. Councillors get paid the big bucks to make the tough decisions.
I tend to be rather black and white on the area of conflict of interest or financial interest. Do you agree, or do you see places where a perceived conflict of interest might be a real thing? Please let me know. You can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org.