Clash on Moncton council over whether deputy mayor has conflict

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Clash on Moncton council over whether deputy mayor has conflict

Moncton Deputy Mayor Blair Lawrence should recuse himself from discussing the old Moncton High School because his wife's role on the Moncton Library board is raising concerns about a conflict of interest, Coun. Shawn Crossman says.

Lawrence's wife, Diane Ross, chairs the Moncton library board, which has opposed rescuing the former high school building by moving the library into it.

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But Crossman said Lawrence could be too close to one side in what has become a polarizing issue in the city.

"How much information is exchanged between a councillor and that chair?" he asked in an interview.

"Just call your conflict, state who you are ... don't leave the public second guessing any decision."

The issue is bubbling over now because the city has two proposals on the table for the future of the former Moncton High School building.

The most recent is from Terra Trust and Bird Construction, and although council has already voted once on the proposal, the details have not been released to the public.

An earlier proposal was put together by a group of business people calling themselves Moncton Renaissance Inc., also known as MH35.

Library opposed to move

The group suggested moving the public library to the high school building and making it the anchor tenant for what would become a community centre.

The library board has opposed moving the library from the Blue Cross Centre on Main Street since the idea was first proposed.

Lawrence has not taken a public stance for or against either proposal for the high school.

But on March 21, 2016, he was the only councillor to vote against a motion to support the MH35 proposal in principle.

"We felt at the time that that was unusual," Dennis Cochrane, president of MH Renaissance, said in an interview.

"Since then he supported in principle the concept of Terra Trust for the property and I would think they would have received less information from that company than they did from us."

Lawrence was one of six councillors who voted Jan. 16 for a motion to support the Terra Trust/ Bird Construction proposal in principle.

Lawrence defends decision

Lawrence would not do an interview but did email a statement. In it he states that he broached the conflict-of-interest question with the city solicitor, who referred him to the Municipalities Act.

Lawrence said in a statement that he is not in a conflict of interest because neither he nor his wife have financial interests in either of the proposals.

"As a result, I have not declared a conflict. It is important to note that I have not taken any position publicly on the MHS file," he said in the statement.

"As a city councillor, I believe it to be in the best interest of our citizens as taxpayers that I refrain from committing to one proposal over another until such time as I receive all of the information from both proponents so as not to prejudice my ultimate decision."

He added that his intention is to only offer a position after council has received all the information about both projects.

"That is what is most fair and right," he said.

Cochrane said he agrees the situation isn't a financial conflict.

"But I would suggest it's a moral conflict and he's the best person to make that determination as to whether his behaviour up to now has been proper or what he might do from now on."

Isabelle LeBlanc, director of communications with the city, said it wasn't an issue for Mayor Dawn Arnold to comment about.

LeBlanc said it's up to Lawrence to decide what to do.

"I do believe he has done his due diligence on this to ensure that he was OK."

'We have nothing to gain financially'

Diane Ross declined an interview but wrote an email statement.

As the library board's chair, Ross said she was the voice of the nine volunteers, who are interested in literacy, diversity and education.

"We have nothing to gain financially and have spent many hours on this issue over the past year because our mandate as library board trustees is to advocate for the public library, its programs and services, and its clients," the email statement said.

The former Moncton High School is still on the market. It's owned by the provincial government.

The province has the final say over who will purchase the building. It's been empty since students left for the new Moncton High School on the outskirts of town in January 2015.