Parents ‘ludicrous’ interpretation threatens all politicians: OPSBA
An email warning Hamilton trustees their votes on school closures could land them in court is prompting the president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association to once again call on the province to clarify the law on conflicts of interest.
Michael Barrett said the email, signed by a dozen Ward 1 residents unhappy with the decision to close Prince Philip elementary school, takes an “absolutely ludicrous” interpretation of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.
It maintains trustees should declare a conflict and not vote on school closures if they own a home in a neighbourhood affected by the decision because it may influence property values, giving them a “pecuniary interest,” or financial stake.
Among the email’s signatories is Mark Coakley, the Prince Philip parent who recently dropped legal proceedings against trustee Judith Bishop over her vote in favour of the school’s closure.
He alleged Bishop had a conflict of interest 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.
The email states the case was withdrawn because Bishop’s conflict was “inadvertent,” as the issue had never come up before. It advises trustees to be aware of the law and its “severe” penalties – which can include removal from office.
“Failure to abide by conflict of interest legislation can lend the appearance of corruption. This is so even where no such corruption exists,” it states. “These laws exist to give the public confidence that their officials act with an even hand. Take them seriously.”
Barrett, who had already been urging the province to clarify the law even before Coakley dropped his case, said the email reinforces the need to do so because its interpretation would “handicap and stalemate” all trustees and municipal councillors.
He said he’s concerned trustees will be intimidated by the threat of costly litigation, citing the case of Toronto trustee Howard Goodman, who reluctantly withdrew from a school boundary review earlier this year after a constituent claimed he had a conflict because his home’s value could be affected.
“This just shows the extent of how acts that were written in the Seventies have been now misinterpreted in the next century,” Barrett said of the email.
“It takes away the ability of the community to be able to have (trustee) representation. 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.”
But Coakley said “the law is what it is” and the email will make it hard for trustees to argue they didn’t know about potential conflicts as they embark on 14 elementary school accommodation reviews over the next five years.
He said having trustees declare conflicts in such situations could improve the school-closure process by giving citizen volunteers on review committees a bigger say.
“Those are engaged citizens who actually live in the area, often cases have children going to the schools,” Coakley said.
“Is it so bad for their voice, their decisions, to be more influential than some politician who does represent the people but is not actually as engaged with these decisions as 15 or 20 actual, active members of the community would be?”
Neither Bishop nor board chair Tim Simmons responded to messages seeking comment for this story.
But east Mountain trusteeLaura Peddlesaid she’d also like the law clarified even though she believes the alleged conflict in the Bishop case was “a bit of a reach.”
She said the email makes her question if she could have been vulnerable to similar accusations a decade ago when she participated in a review that closed several schools in Ward 6, including Fernwood, Hampton Heights and Peace Memorial.
“This is a standard practice that local trustees have to make these decisions. We have to,” said Peddle, who now lives in Dundas.
“If we live in the area, which many do and I did when my kids were younger, was I in that situation? I didn’t think at all that that was going to cause my house value to go up, never thought about it at all.”