The Village of Harrison is rallying around one of its councillors, who has been accused of a conflict of interest by a member of the public.
Village staff was alerted to the issue when someone filed a Freedom of Information request regarding Councillor Dave Harris.
The request asked for items relating to Harris’ history of voting on issues pertaining to his employer, Civic Consultants. Also requested were any mentions of Harris’ income with Civic Consultants, and mentions of Harris excusing himself from council during voting procedures.
Last week, council met in camera to discuss the issue, and decided to go public with the allegations.
Mayor Ken Becotte provided the Observer with a letter from the Village’s lawyer, Murdy & McAllister, that states Dave Harris is not in a conflict of interest by being a councillor and an employee of Civic Consutants.
“Many years ago under the prior legislation there was a statutory prohibition against an elected official having a contract or interest in a contract with the local government on which they served,” the letter states. “That prohibition has long since been removed and there is no automatic restriction of this nature.”
However, it does recognize that there could be a perception of being in a conflict, and outlines ways Harris can avoid that.
Harris, who has worked for Civic Consultants for almost eight years, and has been serving as a councillor for almost six years, says he feels he’s already done everything possible to avoid a conflict of interest.
“I spoke to Gerry Van der Wolf, (Harrison’s then CAO) at the time to see if there was a conflict of interest,” Harris told the Observer. He says he also spoke specifically to the next CAO Larry Burke, and the current CAO Ted Tisdale.
All told him the same thing.
“As long as you don’t vote on matters where Civic could receive some benefit, it’s fine,” he says. “As long as you excuse yourself from council, and I’ve always done that.”
Civic Consultants is the Village’s consulting company, however, and oftentimes council is asked to review Civic reports to make decisions on infrastructure.
The lawyer has told the Village that “in circumstances where Civic Consulting is simply acting in an advisory role in making recommendations and does not stand to benefit, there would seem to be no prohibition on Councillor Harris continuing to participate in his role as a member of council.”
Harris called the allegations “disappointing,” because as a council member he generally loses income when attending daytime meetings instead of working.
He also pointed out that is was his “election platform that made the public aware that our reservoir was inadequate at only 80,000 gallons.”
The reservoir has since been upgraded.
“I think that’s what got me elected, my strength and knowledge around municipal infrastructure and utilities,” he said. “We all have our strengths that we bring to council. Everyone has their own reason for doing this (being a politician).”
When the decision to support Harris publicly was discussed in camera last week, Harris excused himself from the room. “I’m pleased that council aand staff got a legal opinion and brought that to light and it verifies what I thought,” he said, and eliminates that “nagging doubt.”
“I think the lawyer covered it really well and maybe once this is in print, and there’s no basis for a legal claim, maybe they’ll just let it go,” he said.
Mayor Becotte is certain the issue is a dead one.
“It’s done,” he told the Observer. “We have nothing more to do now. It’s very easy for a person in the public to make accusations. Council and staff are 100 per cent in agreement that there is no basis for conflict of interest regarding (Harris’) employment with Civic Consultants. Going forward, if any person in the public feels otherwise, they need to pursue though the courts.”
One discrepancy was spotted due to the FOI request. While Harris believes he has always stated why he was leaving the room, the minutes haven’t stated so.
The lawyer’s letter did state that from now on, a general reason needs to stated and recorded in the minutes.