Legal experts say that a lawsuit demanding Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson be removed from office because he was in a conflict of interest will have to get over a very high bar to be successful.
Past lawsuits by citizens who have tried to get city decisions reversed or to have councillors and mayors disqualified from office over conflict of interest have often failed.
That’s because courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada, say that those elected council members have a right to have opinions, to express public support for local businesses and projects, and even to accept donations from groups they later make decisions about.
The lawsuit, filed Friday at the B.C. Supreme Court by members of a new civic political party called the Cedar Party, claims that Mr. Robertson should not have voted in a closed meeting to lease a city property to HootSuite because he had received benefits from them and was biased.
But lawyers who specialize in municipal law say the direct financial benefit appears to be very unclear and that courts have said there needs to be strong evidence of bias or benefit for the politician to establish that there’s been conflict.
“It’s a very high test,” said Daniel Bennett, a lawyer with Bull, Housser & Tupper who has acted for municipalities in various lawsuits. “Councillors are allowed to be supportive of things they think are good. The fact that [the mayor] is supportive of HootSuite – that’s a real long stretch. The fact that he’s very supportive, that’s what elected officials are supposed to do.”
Barry Williamson, a Kelowna lawyer who has represented northern B.C. cities, also said that the courts have ruled that no one expects mayors to be “empty vessels” with no opinions. And even when a city councillor votes in favour of something benefiting a campaign contributor, that’s not enough to persuade a court that a politician is biased, as a case in Nanaimo established a decade ago.
HootSuite, which had been operating out of offices near the city’s Downtown Eastside, got a lease and option to purchase a former police building near Main and 8th Avenue in the fall of 2012.
The details of the lease were only made public after Glen Chernen, the main spokesman for the Cedar Party, filed a freedom-of-information request. It appeared from what he obtained that HootSuite is leasing the building at market rates for the area, although four other offers had been turned down earlier in the year in a more open bidding process for the building.
Mr. Chernen’s suit says that the second round of the leasing process wasn’t transparent and that Mr. Robertson’s personal relationship with HootSuite founder Ryan Holmes could have biased him in approving the deal.
Specifically, the lawsuit says the mayor got several benefits from the company and expressed public support, indicating his bias. Among those benefits, the suit alleges: he held a town-hall-style public meeting through Twitter at the company’s offices during the 2011 election campaign; he received a promotional kit from them with a T-shirt; he had been to a party at HootSuite offices; and he had tweeted a supportive message about the company.
Mr. Robertson has so far dismissed the suit as bizarre.
“As mayor, I’m very proud of the strong local tech companies that are investing in Vancouver, and city hall will continue to support the new jobs they are creating in our city’s growing economy,” he said in a written statement.
The most famous case in B.C. that spelled out the limits of conflict issues was the Save Richmond Farmland Society lawsuit against Richmond, which argued that a local alderman who had expressed strong support for developing the Terra Nova lands shouldn’t have been allowed to vote. The Supreme Court of Canada said in 1990 that council members aren’t expected to be neutral like judges and noted that councillors are often elected on the basis of their strongly stated positions.
One recent case where the B.C. Court of Appeal did find evidence of a conflict was one where two Islands Trust directors voted in favour of a grant for a local environmental group when they also sat on the board of that group.