While it is true that the city solicitor acts for the City of Saskatoon and not the individual members of council, it would seem appropriate that the city solicitor could give a crash course to council as a whole as to what constitutes a “conflict of interest.”
This is not rocket science. As Coun. Pat Lorje so aptly stated: “If a councillor doesn’t have enough common sense to know they are in a conflict that is very troubling.”
The simple rule of thumb is that if you, or through you, a family member, business partner, employer or associated organization, stands to receive a personal or business gain as a result of a decision you are asked to make, then you are likely in conflict. The classic definition is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional, or in the case of council, political judgment or action is unduly influenced not only by financial gain, but motives such as desire for professional advancement and the wish to do favours for family or friends.
As a councillor, if any member of your family or a business partner is bidding for a city contract, you should back away from the debate and abstain from voting. If your vote on a motion benefits your employer, don’t expect you can be impartial because what benefits them may indirectly benefit you, or may be viewed as advancing your personal career. If you think it doesn’t meet the exact legal definition of conflict of interest, it will certainly qualify as a conflict in the court of public opinion.
A few years ago, there was pressure from the media, and through that the public, for politicians to disclose campaign donations. Clearly, the public wanted to know if elected members would be influenced to make decisions favourable to their donors. At the time, no one believed that a politician would throw away their career for the paltry sum of $250, and since civic campaign donations are not tax deductible, it was anticipated that huge donations would not be on the table.
At its inception, no one considered that groups would collaborate to financially support a particular candidate and that such group support might influence an elected councillor. In some cases, it may be a donor breaking up a large donation by funding several members of a family or employees to make smaller donations, but collectively adding up to a substantial sum. In other cases, it may be an organization having each of its members make a donation, which when added up, might be sufficient to warrant concern.
It is these large “group” donations that may cause conflict of interest concerns, and especially with the growing practice of awarding sole-sourced (non-tendered) city contracts for both goods and services. Without a public tender and a committee to scrutinize potential contracts, it could be that undue influence might be placed on city administration to award a contract, at possibly a higher cost, to someone’s friend, family, in-law or political donor. It places an opaque veil over political transparency and public accountability.
City administration is right about granting a sole-source contract in an emergency situation, but those should be few and far between. And even for emergencies, I would expect that the City should have a list of pre-approved contractors and then have the emergency work circulated from that list.
As to having work done in a timely fashion, I would think that the City knows what work is on the horizon and what on-going contracts are coming due. Public tendering of goods and services gives several sets of eyes and professional opinions on a contract before it is awarded. It is the most reasonable way to ensure that there is no behind closed doors “undue influence” by an elected member of city council, and thus a possible “conflict of interest.”
Smart politicians shy away from situations where even the appearance of impropriety presents itself, if for no other reason than self-preservation. They don’t generally seek legal advice to tell them when something stinks in the political heap. To date, we have not heard allegations of conflict of interest against any member of council. But if common sense can’t prevail, and $27,000 is the cost of self-policing or council members policing each other, it might be a small price to pay given the hundreds of million dollars being spent.