The mayor of Belcarra, B.C., resigned Tuesday after fellow councillors with alleged conflicts of interest blocked a last-ditch plan to improve the village's water supply for firefighting.
Neil Belenkie said he left office in protest after two council members refused to recuse themselves from a vote last month to approve the sale of municipal land to raise money for a new water supply system in the Metro Vancouver village.
Belenkie claimed Coun. Carolina Clark and Coun. Bruce Drake had direct conflicts because they each own property near the vacant plots that would have gone up for sale.
He said, as mayor, there was nothing he could do to stop them from voting against the plan.
"I've done everything I could do. If I had any any option left to be able to improve the water system, I would. But I've nothing left," Belenkie told CBC News on Tuesday.
"I have no more power as a citizen than I do as a mayor to enforce conflict of interest."
Councillors admitted they were in conflict: Belenkie
An elected committee tasked with examining the village's water supply issue recommended selling 31 parcels of municipal land as the best way to raise money for a $4-million water tower, as the village has more than $3 million of debt and could not borrow the capital.
Belenkie said the councillors had previously admitted they were in a conflict on the issue, but did not step aside when a critical bylaw amendment came to a vote on Sept. 28.
"[Clark's] husband actually wrote a letter to council saying that their life savings were invested in this property and the view was an essential component of the property's value. And yet, this councillor felt that it was OK not to be in conflict," he said.
"This [selling of village land] was the way to do it. And these councillors ... eliminated the ability to solve these problems."
Clark said Belenkie got it wrong.
"I do not agree that I have breached the conflict of interest rules and I'm disappointed that the mayor would publicly make such allegations about me," Clark wrote in an email to CBC News on Wednesday.
"Regarding my husband's letter: My husband wrote the letter. I did not have any involvement with it. Furthermore, I am on the record as having declared a conflict of interest regarding the waterfront lot across the street from my property."
She added that she has sought legal advice on the matter.
Drake says his vote against the sale was not motivated by his property's proximity to the municipal land in question, but rather by the concerns voiced by residents during a public hearing.
"My vote was changed by the outpouring of concerns residents registered at the public hearing and I believe this was the case for most other councillors," Drake wrote in an email to CBC News. "This is what public hearings are held for."
He also stated the sale of the land would have no impact on the value of his property as one of the road ends to be sold is adjacent to his neighbour's property, not Drake's
Coun. Liisa Wilder also voted against the amendment last month, so the village cannot move forward with the sales of land.
Reached by phone on Thursday, Wilder said she could not comment on the conflict of interest allegations against her fellow councillors as they do not affect her "personally."
She said the bylaw amendment passed in its first two readings in mid-September, but councillors flipped to block the bylaw after an "unprecedented" number of people turned up to oppose the sale of the land in a public hearing on Sept. 28.
Wilder, now acting mayor, said Belenkie's explanation for the vote is inaccurate.
"I can't speak for the other councillors [as to] why they voted ... but in my opinion, that's not what happened," she said. "I was voting based on the outcry from the public."
Reporting conflict of interest 'a horrible process': Belenkie
It is up to councillors to recuse themselves in a conflict of interest situation. Any conflict of interest case against a councillor would have to be approved by a two-thirds vote of council or handled in court, if an application is made by at least 10 members of the public.
There are only five people on council in Belcarra: a mayor and four councillors.
Belenkie said a public application is unlikely in a village of less than 650 people. The tiny village does not have a legal team, either.
"Residents aren't comfortable putting a target on their back from other residents or from the councillors who remain in power, through whatever investigation would be launched as a result of a public petition," he said. "It's a horrible process."
Belenkie, who has worked as a volunteer firefighter, said the water supply system needs desperate upgrades as the current infrastructure wouldn't be enough if a major wildfire broke out in the heavily forested village.
Belenkie said he has contacted the province requesting an investigation.
A byelection will be held in 2021.