Viewpoint 42-2: Elected Municipal Officials Must Be Careful About Conflicts of Interest.

Author:Bowal, Peter
 
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Introduction

At the time we are writing this, the province of Alberta is in election campaign mode for all of its municipal leaders known as mayors, councilors and reeves. At the same time, the federal Minister of Finance is under the ethical spotlight for how he continues to hold his personal wealth while legislating in the economic and taxation realm and proposing reforms from which he might obtain personal advantage.

Ethics in Canadian political offices has largely been reduced to dealing with personal actual or perceived conflicts of interest in the carrying out of public responsibilities. These concerns arise when legislators could obtain disproportionate personal benefit from their decisions or actions. Federally, the regulation of legislators' conflicts of interest is generally left to the Ethics Commissioner who is an Officer of Parliament.

While there may be ethics advisors, commissioners and officers in the largest municipalities, provincial legislation strictly regulates elected municipal officials. They are prohibited from proposing, discussing or voting on any matter in which they may have a pecuniary interest. This is a first line of defence against corruption. It seeks to ensure that actions by government officials are made for the public benefit. Overall, it is a cornerstone of effective democratic governance.

Legislation

The Alberta Municipal Government Act (sections 169 through 179), and similar legislation in other provinces, guards against municipal councillors' conflicts of interest. It is the primary source of law for councillors' actions and can be broken into the following three analytical categories.

What constitutes an interest?

This is the first step in the analysis that must be established. A conflict of interest exists when a councillor, a councillor's family member, or a corporation for which a councillor is a director or an officer stands to monetarily benefit from a decision made by the municipal council.

For example, a councillor discussing and voting on a decision to award a public contract to a business one owns would be a clear conflict. The councillor would personally benefit monetarily from the profit such a contract would earn the business and the councillor. Foremost, the councillor must act in the best interests of the public, not one's own best interest. When one stands to gain personally, it is impossible to be properly focused on the best interests of one's constituents.

Identifying one's own potential conflict of interest is a very important step.

What must a councillor do when facing a potential conflict of...

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