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Lawsuit alleges Vancouver mayor in conflict of interest over HootSuite lease

Ties between city and social media company called into question
A petition filed in B.C. Supreme Court Feb. 14 alleges Mayor Gregor Robertson failed to disclose a conflict of interest over the lease a civic building to social media company HootSuite. Photo Dan Toulgoet

A new political party isn’t waiting until November’s civic election to unseat Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Cedar Party leader Glen Chernen and nine other people filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court on Feb. 14, seeking a judge to effectively fire Robertson for failing to disclose a conflict of interest, under the Vancouver Charter, regarding the lease of a civic building to social media company HootSuite. The petitioners, represented by lawyer Marco Francesco Lilliu, claim Robertson had an indirect pecuniary interest in HootSuite’s lease of 5 East Eighth Ave. “to his good friend and campaigner, HootSuite Media Inc. CEO Ryan Holmes.”

The statement of claim alleged Robertson received “substantial election, campaign and political assistance,” including the hosting of Twitter “town halls” at HootSuite’s offices and unspecified gifts, like a #HootKit at the Grow 2011 Conference on April 24 of that year.

The claim said HootSuite and its technology assisted Roberson in communicating to “an unlimited amount of Twitter users online,” as well as real-time voter-sentiment tracking.

None of the allegations has been proven in court. The city has 21 days to respond with a statement of defence.

The lawsuit said that less than seven months after Robertson and his Vision Vancouver party won re-election in 2011, the city agreed behind closed doors to lease the 33,282-square-foot building to Holmes’s company on June 27, 2012. The city’s attempt to sell the property was aborted because the city claimed it received insufficient bids. “The property was not retendered for lease under a transparent process,” said the lawsuit.

The lease contract was finally disclosed on Jan. 21, showing a $47,149.50 per month ($17 per square foot) charge, escalating to $61,017 ($22 per square foot) in the fifth year. The contract included a $700,000 renovation allowance and an option to buy the former Vancouver Police building for $9.3 million by the end of 2015.

Said the lawsuit: “A reasonably well-informed elector in the City of Vancouver could conclude that Mr. Robertson’s interest as the recipient of substantial assistance from Mr. Holmes/HootSuite as well as their personal relationship could influence Mr. Robertson’s decision to authorize the lease of the city-owned property. The facts in the case at hand would lead an elector to question who received the better deal, the City of Vancouver or HootSuite.”

The lawsuit also said Holmes contacted Robertson’s chief of staff Mike Magee on July 3, 2012 via Magee’s Converge Communications private email account, asking for the building to be added to the city’s Tenant Improvement Program to expedite renovation permits.

The lawsuit also said city hall has refused to show how much it actually receives monthly from HootSuite. Likewise, city hall is keeping secret the amount it pays for a monthly HootSuite software licence on a contract that was not put out to tender.

When he was originally sworn-in as mayor in December 2008, Robertson promised to “ensure transparency” at city hall.

“I will not let you down on making city hall more open and accountable,” he said at the time.

The Office of the Mayor could not be reached for immediate comment.

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