Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Manitoba needs to beef up conflict-of-interest laws

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Throughout his tenure as mayor of Winnipeg, conflict-of-interest allegations have dogged Sam Katz over dealings between the city and various friends and business associates of Katz. In the past few weeks, fresh finger-pointing has followed the disclosure of Katz's purchase of Duddy Enterprises LLC from City of Winnipeg CAO Phil Sheegl for $1.

The media coverage was intense but Manitobans should not think conflict-of-interest issues are a problem unique to Winnipeg. A search of media reports and court records reveals such allegations are made against elected officials throughout the province with surprising regularity.

A cursory online search finds judgments rendered by Manitoba courts in cases involving conflict of interest in the rural municipalities of Glenwood, Clanwilliam, Cornwallis and Whitehead in the past decade.

Each of these matters has raised the public's awareness of the ethical challenges faced by our politicians. They have also exposed the inadequacies of conflict-of-interest legislation that currently governs the conduct of Manitoba's municipal and provincial representatives.

Two provincial statutes are relevant here. The Municipal Council Conflict of Interest Act applies to all councillors, reeves and mayors who serve on various municipal councils throughout the province. The Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act applies to MLAs, provincial cabinet ministers and senior public servants.

Though the two laws are largely identical in standards of conduct and enforcement procedures, it is difficult to understand why one law would include the conduct of senior public servants, but not the other. Neither statute prohibits elected officials from doing business with their staff, as in the Katz-Sheegl transaction.

A Free Press editorial Sept. 13 correctly complained "the municipal conflict rules are skeletal, relating narrowly to financial interests, prohibiting politicians from taking part in municipal decision-making that may affect those interests.

"They do not speak to the broad, complex matters of ethics, influence peddling and unbecoming conduct of politicians or senior officers and administrators."

The same could be also said regarding the rules governing the conduct of MLAs and cabinet ministers, but the flaws in both statutes go far beyond the narrowness of their scope -- to the point where it is appropriate to ask if the provincial government seriously wants to promote ethical conduct by our elected representatives.

If the province is committed to ensuring the actions of our elected representatives are not influenced by conflicting interests and other ethical impediments, it would amend the applicable legislation to prohibit all forms of conduct in which a representative's private interests may compromise the public interest.

It would expand the law's scope, by including senior officers and administrators working at both the provincial and municipal level. They are the people who often exercise the real decision-making power in government.

Under the current legislative scheme, individual citizens bear the burden of gathering evidence of a breach of the conflict-of-interest laws, and of seeking a judicial remedy in instances when a municipal council refuses to act. This is a difficult, time-consuming and expensive process -- so onerous as to render the laws effectively unenforceable. In fact, lawsuits that have been launched were filed by councillors against other councillors, not by ordinary citizens.

Manitoba needs a government-funded agency tasked with the enforcement of tougher, broader conflict-of-interest laws. That agency must be independent, with sweeping investigative powers, including the ability to compel the production of evidence.

Legislation creating the agency should also impose the obligation on all elected representatives and government employees to report conduct that may violate the legislation, and serious penalties for failing to make such a report.

Rather than expecting municipalities to each hire the services of a commissioner, Manitoba should have one adequately funded agency to prevent a patchwork quilt of varying standards and enforcement schemes.

This would go a long way to constructing effective conflict-of-interest laws that protect all Manitobans and build confidence in the decisions made by our elected representatives.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2012 A11

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