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Civic watchdog says shielded Vancouver-HootSuite deal invites questions

Secretive city leads to call for clarification on conflict of interest
HootSuite, one of Vancouver's most noted tech companies officially opened its new digs in Mount Pleasant, courtesy of a deal with the city, last April. It spent nearly $2 million renovating the city-owned building on East Eighth. File Photo Dan Toulgoet

A government accountability watchdog says Mayor Gregor Robertson may never have been accused of conflict of interest by a political foe if city hall had been “transparent from day one” about the lease of a city-owned building to a social media company.

Cedar Party leader Glen Chernen is alleging Robertson is in conflict of interest because HootSuite was given a lease for 5 East Eighth Avenue without a competitive process. Chernen claims HootSuite was rewarded for helpingRobertson and Vision Vancouver win the 2011 election. Robertson described Chernen’s Feb. 14 petition to B.C. Supreme Court as “bizarre,” and claimed city hall supports HootSuite for economic development reasons.

City hall has not published the minutes of a June 27, 2012 closed-door meeting where the five-year lease was approved. The lease, which began at $47,149.50 a month, was finally released in January, but city hall has refused Freedom of Information requests to show the actual payments received monthly from HootSuite for rent and the city’s payments to HootSuite for use of HootSuite premium services.

“I would feel a lot more comfortable with the lawsuit if it was not coming from a political competitor. The courts should not become a strategic arm of a political campaign,” IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis told the Courier. “The most frustrating feature about all of this that does not do Gregor Robertson or City of Vancouver well is that they are being so bloody secretive about the whole deal.”

Chernen’s petition alleges Robertson did not follow Vancouver Charter requirements for a council member to disclose a direct or indirect pecuniary interest or avoid a meeting, discussion or vote involving that interest.

Travis said the provincial government needs to clarify municipal laws on conflict of interest.

Before the 2011 election, citizens on Salt Spring Island petitioned for removal of two people from the island’s Local Trust Committee. Christine Torgrimson and George Ehring were on the LTC when $4,000 contracts were given to the Water Council Society and Climate Action Society. Neither disclosed that they were directors of the newly incorporated societies, but they argued they had no financial interest because they were not paid directors of the societies.

The appeals court ruled that the public did not have the undivided loyalty of their elected officials regarding the expenditure of public funds. “It makes no difference that they put no money into their own pockets,” said the January 2013 verdict.

In 2001, B.C. Court of Appeal overturned a lower court’s ruling to disqualify William Frederick King from Nanaimo city council for not disclosing campaign donations from developer Northridge Village.

“There is no evidence of a direct pecuniary interest in the sense that he agreed to vote for these projects in return for their campaign contribution of $1,000.00,” said the appeal court verdict on King.

The last big city mayor to face a conflict of interest probe is one who is no stranger to controversy. Before his 2010 election as Toronto mayor, Rob Ford was a city councillor. The Toronto Integrity Commissioner found Ford improperly used the City of Toronto logo, staff and his status as a councillor to raise $3,150 for the Rob Ford Football Foundation to buy equipment for high school teams. Ford kept the mayoralty after he successfully appealed a November 2012 Ontario court ruling that found him in conflict of interest. The Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear the case.

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