In order for democracy to be free of corruption it’s important that those elected to represent their communities don’t use their positions to enrich themselves at the expense of those who elected them. That’s why all levels of government in Canada have conflict of interest rules that are designed to keep politicians on the straight and narrow.
And while obvious breeches of these rules are easy to spot, such as a councillor voting for a zoning variance that would help her husband’s construction company double the value of its development, there is a lot of grey area in the rules.
Recently both Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustee Judith Bishop and Toronto trustee Howard Goodman have faced allegations that they were in a conflict of interest position because they voted on, or were involved with, the process of closing schools or changing school boundaries in the wards they represent. (The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association has asked the provincial government to clarify the regulations to settle this matter once and for all.) The logic in both cases is that the trustees stood to benefit financially in terms of an increase in the price of their personal homes depending on which schools remained open and which were slated for closure.
This is where things get grey.
There is no question that how close a house is located to a school, and the quality of that school, can add thousands of dollars of value to that property.
There is also no question that trustees are elected by local residents to be their voice on local issues, and, for a trustee, what is more local than the fate of a neighbourhood’s school?
So the question becomes, is it more detrimental to democracy to risk a politician reaping a potential profit or to risk not having local input on a vital local issue?
Absent any direct proof that a trustee’s actions are directly motivated by a desire to profit on the sale of his or her home, local input should prevail.
School closings are always contentious. No one wants his or her child to have to travel further than necessary to get an education. No one wants to lose the community hub that schools are in their neighbourhoods. However, given an overall decline in total enrolment and the board’s financial situation, difficult decisions need to be made. And when those decisions are being made would it be better to ignore the thoughts of the person whose job it is to represent the community or to use his or her specific knowledge to make the best decision possible?
Yes, it is possible that an unscrupulous politician could exploit his or her position for personal gain by protecting his or her neighbourhood schools, but there is a remedy much more effective than all the conflict of interest rules in the world and which strikes fear into the hearts of corrupt public officials.
It’s called an election.