Conflict of interest raised regarding Fire Chief selection

Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

Wednesday, November 6 2019

The Trustees for the Gabriola Fire Protection Improvement District Board say they are satisfied that each individual Trustee are not in a conflict of interest with any aspect of the hiring of the new Fire Chief. That, in an email sent by Paula Mallinson, Corporate Officer for the Fire District. Mallinson said as for current Fire Chief Rick Jackson and Jared Hooper, “they are on the hiring committee in a consulting position, they answer questions and make suggestions, but when it actually comes to the selection of Fire Chief they have no vote.”

She said the regular meeting of the Fire Board which had been scheduled for November 6 was cancelled.

The question on conflict of interest came after the issue was brought up during the Fire District’s meeting held on October 23.

During the ‘Town Hall’ portion of the meeting, firefighter Kyle Clifford brought up the hiring process for the new Fire Chief, and said he wanted to make sure the Trustees have ensured there can be no question of there being a conflict of interest between those doing the hiring - and the persons who are applying for the job.

“A conflict of interest could be the result of a close personal relationship, a business interest, or a family connection.

Clifford did not say whether there is a conflict of interest for any of the members of the hiring committee with the persons who have applied to be the next Fire Chief for Gabriola Island.

He said, “I am concerned that the current recruitment for the Gabriola Fire Chief could be grieved or challenged based on conflict of interest. I realize that many, if not all, of the Board of Trustees would know the internal Gabriola Fire Department applicants. However some may have what could be interpreted as a conflict of interest which could form the basis of a future challenge of the process.”

The Improvement District Manual, published by the BC Government states, “While there is no specific conflict of interest legislation that applies to improvement districts, conflict of interest allegations can be raised in the courts against trustees under common law.”

The BC Government lays out that Conflict of Interest can arise when someone has either a pecuniary, or non-pecuniary conflict of interest.

While the Community Charter definition for local governments does not legally apply to Improvement District Officials, governance staff with the BC Government said Improvement Districts are asked to use the Community Charter as a guideline.

Governance and Structure Branch staff pointed out that while there is no conflict of interest legislation that deals specifically with Improvement Districts, a conflict of interest accusation could still theoretically form part of a legal challenge to strike down a bylaw, resolution, or decision of the board. 

Trustees are responsible for determining when they are in a conflict of interest and should seek legal advice when they are unsure. 

The Improvement District manual provides some guidance about how trustees should think about conflict of interest, but each set of circumstances is unique and only the courts can make determinations about any particular situation.

Mallinson and the Board were asked if they had obtained legal advice on whether each of the Trustees were in a conflict of interest, but had not replied to the Sounder on that question at press time.

Under the Community Charter, officials elected to other local government levels - such as the Regional District of Nanaimo or Islands Trust - have a non-pecuniary conflict of interest if the following qualifications are met:

- The locally elected official’s interest in the matter is immediate and distinct from the public interest.

- It can be reasonably determined that the locally elected official’s private interest in the matter will influence their vote on the matter.

- The locally elected official, or one of their relations or associates, stands to realize a personal benefit from a favourable decision on the matter.

As stated in the Ethical Standards section for Local Governments on the BC Government site, the key consideration is whether a reasonable person would conclude that a private interest or personal benefit could influence the decision making.

Officials are advised to err on the side of caution and seek legal advice if there are any real or perceived nonpecuniary conflicts-of-interest.

Mallinson stated the Trustees were satisfied they were not in a conflict of interest, “Pursuant to Section “B” of the Improvement District Manual and Division 6, Section 100 of the Community Charter.”

Trustees and District Staff were not asked who the applicants were for the Fire Chief position.

Mallinson said, “The Trustees are aware that they are in a position of trust. The current Board has worked diligently to ensure that all applicants will be treated equally, and will continue to do so.”