Pigeons and that darned old "Conflict of Interest" thingy

How to tapdance around what everyone knows.

Like a great many people I’ve sat through presentations about “Conflict of Interest.” As described by Councillor Jim Hanson this week it’s not a complicated thing. If you (or someone you know) stands to benefit from a decision you’re in a conflict of interest. You can’t act impartially, so you don’t participate.

The other important part of “Conflict of Interest” is that you can’t just wiggle out of it on a technicality: it is the appearance of a conflict that matters.

Jim Hanson explained all of this in less than a minute, in a manner that pretty much anyone could follow and understand. Councillor Betty Forbes, whose actions led to this discussion, had a longer and more detailed presentation as part of her orientation by District staff, subsequent discussions with senior staff, and finally a taxpayer funded session with an outside independent lawyer. Despite all of this Forbes claims that she just didn’t understand the idea.

Hanson’s comments were prompted by the release of the Loukidelis report which examines the adoption of Bylaw 8402, which outlawed Betty Forbe’s neighbour’s pigeons.

Council watchers were presented with the absurd exercise of a meeting where Council was to discuss and approve the District staff’s report about the Loukidelis report, but were forbidden from discussing the report itself. Even more absurd, Betty Forbes had the audacity to actually speak up in support of the staff recommendations.

I think it’s abundantly clear to everyone in the District that the pigeon bylaw was created in a conflict of interest. Literally the only reason it was drafted and approved was because Betty Forbes wanted to eliminate her neighbour’s pigeons. I have to believe that every member of Council was fully aware of that conflict when the bylaw was being drafted and discussed. Instead of throwing the whole thing out, or at least grandfathering in Forbes’ neighbour, a majority of Council chose to approve it.

Now thousands upon thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money is being wasted. There are the costs associated with drafting the bylaw, and the staff resources spent on dealing with Forbes’ determined effort to find some way, any way, to punish her neighbour. There is the cost of an outside independent legal council that was provided to give Forbes’ another layer of legal advice. And now there is the expense of fighting not one, but two legal battles that are the result of this bylaw.

The other thing that I’ve learned over the years is that sometimes your best solution isn’t to fight to the bitter end. Financially or morally sometimes the route you need to take is to back down, apologise, and try hard not to make the same mistake again in the future.

Right now the District still has the option of repealing Bylaw 8402, apologizing to Forbe’s neighbour Kulwant Dulay, and offering to compensate his legal costs. It might embarrass Betty Forbes and the members of Council who backed her, but it is the right thing to do.