Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Potential conflict in Brandon deepens

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BRANDON -- As new details emerge relating to efforts by the Brandon Folk Music and Art Society (BFMAS) to convert the former Strand Theatre in downtown Brandon into a 450-seat performing arts centre, the issue of possible conflicts of interest involving various local politicians has dominated local media coverage.

While the discussion has focused on Brandon East MLA Drew Caldwell, a growing number of Brandonites are also asking if Mayor Shari Decter Hirst's private interests in the success of the Strand project are in conflict with her public duty as Brandon's mayor.

For those unfamiliar with the situation, the society submitted an application to the federal Department of Canadian Heritage in March 2011, seeking more than $2 million in funding for the project.

The balance would come from the provincial government ($1,114,065), BFMAS fundraising ($500,000), and the City of Brandon ($474,000, through its downtown development agency, Renaissance Brandon).

Within the 200 pages funding application document -- which has never been made public -- is the BFMAS organizational chart. It indicates that "Dr. D. Decter" is the folk music and art society's treasurer and a member of its board of directors.

Dr. Diarmud Decter is Shari Decter Hirst's husband.

Also in the application is a copy of a letter (on City of Brandon letterhead) signed by Decter Hirst, in her capacity as Brandon mayor, in which she strongly endorses the project. It does not disclose that her husband is an officer and director of BFMAS.

Last summer, at the behest of the society, Renaissance Brandon advanced $100,000 in funding for emergency structural repairs of the Strand building. Decter Hirst is one of three Brandon city council representatives on the Renaissance Brandon board of directors.

Brandon city councillor Len Isliefson, who also serves on the Renaissance Brandon board, has confirmed to me that Decter Hirst has been present at board meetings where funding for the Strand Project was discussed.

Isliefson says she has never declared a conflict of interest, nor removed herself from any of those meetings while Strand matters were discussed.

Isliefson was unaware Dr. Decter was an officer and director of BFMAS until I told him.

The declaration of assets filed by Decter Hirst with the City of Brandon indicates she owns the property located across the street from the Strand, and another property less than a block from the former theatre.

She told the Brandon Sun if the Strand project is successfully completed, her property across from the theatre will increase in value.

These facts present a serious problem for Decter Hirst.

It is illegal for any member of a municipal council (including a mayor) to be present at a council meeting where a matter in which the council member, or a member of her family, has a direct or indirect pecuniary interest is being discussed. (See the Municipal Council Conflict of Interest Act, sections 4-6 and 16.)

The member must immediately disclose the general nature of the interest, remove himself or herself from the meeting, and must not attempt to influence the matter in any manner.

The same rules apply to "a meeting of any commission, board or agency on which the councillor serves in his official capacity as a councillor." Renaissance Brandon is such an agency.

The consequences for breach of those rules are serious -- disqualification from office and an order to repay any pecuniary gain.

Decter Hirst has said she stands to benefit financially from the completion of the Strand project. Her husband is an officer and director of BFMAS, which has already received $100,000 in funding from Renaissance Brandon and which is still seeking another $374,000.

She attended Renaissance Brandon meetings when the Strand project funding was discussed but neither declared a conflict of interest nor removed herself from any of those meetings nor did she disclose to the board her husband was an officer and director of BFMAS.

She used her influence as Brandon's mayor in an attempt to induce the federal government to give more than $2 million to a corporation of which her husband is an officer and director, according to Isliefson.

While only a judge can determine if Decter Hirst has violated the applicable legislation, she should be concerned.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

deverynrossletters@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2012 A12

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