No evidence Cortes Island director used public office to influence district staff, lawyer argues

·4 min read

The Strathcona Regional District (SRD) board's evidence doesn’t support allegations Cortes Island director Noba Anderson used her public office to influence district staff on a matter involving her private property, her lawyer argued at a recent board meeting.

Matthew Voell spoke on Anderson’s behalf at a public hearing held Jan. 27 so the SRD board can decide whether to continue to pursue the allegations in B.C. Supreme Court and potentially disqualify her from office.

The SRD board voted to explore the allegation of inside influence at an earlier meeting based on a Dec. 17 email from Anderson to a staff member about a proposed subdivision of a Cortes Island property she co-owns.

In the email, Anderson asked the staff member to delay his review of information from the Ministry of Transport around the application to subdivide the property, a staff report stated.

Additionally, Anderson and staff had agreed that another owner of the property would communicate to avoid conflict of interest, the staff report said.

The board is concerned Anderson violated Section 102 of the Community Charter, the legal framework concerning municipal government in B.C.

Voell disputed both allegations outlined in the report.

Anderson didn’t leverage her influence as a director in her communications with staff, nor did she agree not to communicate with staff around the application concerning her shared property, he said.

The relevant section of the community charter states a person must not use their office to attempt to influence a staff member with respect to a decision, Voell said.

“It doesn’t prohibit a board member from acting in their personal capacity with respect to their property,” he said, noting that if Anderson were the sole owner of the property in question, she’d have no choice but to communicate with district staff.

Anderson communicated with SRD staff in a personal capacity using her private email and not in her role as director, Voell said.

He presented an email sent by Anderson to a staff member requesting that only her private email be used rather than her director email since the property matter was a personal issue.

The email with Anderson’s request was not included in the material being considered by the board around the allegation, Voell said.

In addition, communications about the application solely directed to Anderson were almost always copied to her land partner, which indicates she was acting as one of a number of private property owners, he added.

Though Anderson received an email from SRD staff suggesting she assign another person to communicate with the district, she didn’t agree to do so, Voell said.

Anderson’s disputed Dec. 17 email to staff requesting a delay of the application review was a courtesy to avoid wasting staff time and the property owners’ money because the owners weren’t proceeding with the current application and were going to change it, Voell said.

Questions to Voell from other board members reflected concerns that directors can’t step back and forth between their public and private roles.

Director Claire Moglove questioned whether the blurring of the two roles could be misinterpreted by staff since a director is in a position of power.

“The legislation says there is room for a director acting in a personal capacity provided they don't use their office,” Voell said, adding Anderson’s email explicitly stated she was acting in a personal capacity.

Moglove also asked why Anderson did not refer all communications around the application to another landowner as requested by staff.

Voell suggested that wasn’t the question at issue for the board to consider.

“The question before the board is not whether she could have done more,” Voell said.

“The question is, ‘Was she using her office to exert undue influence?’”

Director Charlie Cornfield also questioned whether staff were capable of distinguishing between a director’s public and personal roles.

“The legislation does not say: What do staff think? Rather, it's an objective test whether they used their office,” Voell replied.

“And so, while it may be best practice to never communicate with staff on a personal matter, that's not what the legislation says.”

Quadra Island director Jim Abram questioned if the staff member being asked to delay the application review felt uncomfortable by the request.

Nothing in the material presented by SRD for consideration suggested the staff member believed Anderson was acting as director, Voell replied.

“So, to make those leaps, I would say, is completely unreasonable,” he said.

“And if the board has considered any material from (the staff member) saying that he was uncomfortable, and did not disclose that material to director Anderson before making the decision today, there is a serious breach of procedural fairness, and certainly would be grounds to quash any decision made by the board,” Voell added.

Following the hearing, the board decided to refer the matter to the district’s legal counsel.

The SRD’s decision on whether to proceed with the court application for Anderson’s disqualification is slated for the board’s meeting on Feb. 10.

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer