Bishop’s alleged conflict unfounded, lawyer asserts
The parent who took trustee Judith Bishop to court over her vote to close Prince Philip public school is being warned he could be sued for “any damage to her reputation” if he continues to say she had a conflict of interest on the matter.
A letter from Bishop’sTorontolawyer accuses Mark Coakley of defaming her in a recent email he and 11 other Prince Philip parents sent to all trustees stating the court action was withdrawn because her conflict was “inadvertent.”
The email cautioned trustees their votes on future school closures in their neighbourhoods could bring similar actions against them for alleged violations of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.
But lawyer George Avraam’s letter states his client “specifically rejected a settlement offer” that would have seen her admit she had an inadvertent conflict and only agreed to not seek legal costs against Coakley when he offered to drop the case.
Coakley alleged Bishop, trustee for ward 1 and 2, had a conflict because closing Prince Philip, located in the Ainslie Wood area, saved two schools in her Westdale neighbourhood, Dalewood and George R. Allan, potentially affecting her home’s value.
Avraam maintains Coakley “never adduced any credible evidence” that Bishop had a financial interest in the outcome of the 6-5 vote to close Prince Philip in April 2012.
“Ms Bishop’s position has always been that her interests in the April, 2012, votes were interests she held in common with at least a part of the electorate in her community,” he states.
“There is a clear exception under the Act for this type of situation, and thus any threats made to Ms Bishop or other Trustees about their proposed involvement in future school accommodation reviews lacks a fundamental legal foundation.”
Coakley, who said the Avraam letter was sent to all 12 parents who signed his email, referred questions to his lawyer, Craig Burley, also a Prince Philip parent.
Burley rejected both Avraam’s interpretation of the law and claim that Coakley’s case was baseless, citing evidence provided by “an esteemed McMaster University professor published throughout the world stating the opposite.”
He said the impact of the closure is obviously different on Ainslie Wood, which is losing its school, than on Westdale, where the board will spend nearly $19 million upgrading Dalewood and George R. Allan.
“We’ve got Peter being robbed here to pay Paul, and Paul’s now alleging that Peter’s going to benefit just as much,” Burley said.
“Frankly I think that’s outrageous, but more to the point, the courts have not interpreted the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act that way, which is what’s really up for discussion here,” he said.
“For the response to come back that this (email) was defamatory I think is surprising, but I guess it speaks to the level of hostility and mistrust that exists now between the board and the community.”
Avraam’s letter is the latest volley in a case that has prompted Ontario Public School Boards’ Association president Michael Barrett to urge the province to clarify the law.
“It takes away the ability of the community to be able to have (trustee) representation,” he said of the parents’ interpretation. “We have a letter written by a dozen individuals trying to supersede the rights of thousands of other voters or electors in that area of the city.”
Toronto trustee Howard Goodman highlighted the legal uncertainties of such disputes earlier this year when he withdrew “with great reluctance” from a school boundary review in his ward after a constituent suggested he had a conflict.
He said at the time a lawyer specializing in municipal law advised him a judge could indeed find him in conflict because the law isn’t clear and legal precedents are “equally vague.”
While neither Bishop nor board chair Tim Simmons have responded to requests for comment, Mountain trustee Laura Peddlehas said she supports Barrett’s call for more legal clarity, especially since the Hamilton board plans to hold 14 elementary school closure studies over the next five years in a bid to eliminate 5,000 surplus pupil spaces.