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Conflict of Interest and Small Town Saskatchewan Politics

Conflict of interest refers to when a municipal councillor puts their interests ahead of the best interests of the community as a whole. Councillors are expected to consider the needs of the entire community when decision-making. They are expected, as government, to hold themselves to a higher standard than the general population. That means if there is even an appearance of a conflict of interest, they must excuse themselves from any discussion or decision-making around the hot topic. They do not get a vote.

And guess what? It isn't just about financial gain anymore. If you are on Council to get a new rink built (for example) because you or anyone you love wants a new rink, or if you are part of the rink committee that is actively fundraising, or you own a gravel business, and then get the work without it going to tender, then you are in a conflict of interest. This type of paternalistic politics destroys communities. While people build things they want, they leave generations paying the expense long after they are gone. Sometimes, it takes generations to pay for the debt that ego incurred.

Sometimes the issue doesn't result in more debt; sometimes, it results in the people who live in the community carrying a deep mistrust of the people running the community. It is tough to tell until years later what kind of damage results.

Conflict of interest, unaddressed, destroys any faith people might have had in their Council. We tend to blame them all. Even after an election, even when there is a change in Council. Council, in our minds, becomes its own entity. Stain it, and you can stain it for generations. It is a weird phenomenon we have in small towns...

Community engagement, transparency, feasibility studies, market research, decent estimates based on actual designs, and a clear understanding of who will pay the operating and maintenance costs are a start. Many councils skip this essential part of project management because they honestly would rather not know; they would instead build their thing and damn the costs. And we elected them.

Other councillors are well-intentioned, believing their idea will undoubtedly benefit the community. However, they do not understand the costs involved regarding ongoing expenses or even if their community would agree with their plan. This is why community engagement is so critical. Skip this, and you risk going down a path the community as a whole, if they had all the information, would never support.

Still, others use their position on Council to get work that should properly be put out for tender or are involved in the vote when deciding who should get the job. All of these represent examples of conflict of interest.

Part of the issue is that people are pretty apathetic within the community. They only consider the pros when they see something as progressive but do not understand the associated risks, expenses, and impact on the community. Or they hear the rumours and ignore them. But when lousy decision-making results in increased taxes, they are not prepared to ignore that. Friends and neighbours, where did you think the money would come from...spoiler comes from you. There is no way to maintain our existing assets without regular tax increases, never mind building a bunch of new stuff. I am not saying you do not build; I am saying know the costs and how you as a community will cover those costs. I am saying follow the rules regarding conflict of interest; they are there for a reason.

The hell of it is most people within the community can tell when someone is operating in conflict, but the legislation here forces regular people to hire lawyers at their own expense to fight it. Council knows when someone is acting in conflict within their ranks but cannot call out the rogue, leaving the training and the rogue's ethics to govern behaviour. There is no way to make them take the training or for us to correct this breach of ethics.

Mostly, people do their best when they run for Council. Once they know better, they do better. But a few out there simply don't give a fiddler's damn, what the rules are, or what it costs the community in the long run. Ego rules the day in these situations. When everyone knows, we can only wait for the next election and judge ourselves accordingly. And we can ask the question...who is paying the operating costs? Who is paying the maintenance costs? How much will it cost to build? What are the risks? Who is responsible for risk management? Who owns the asset? Did they agree to pay the balance? And so on, and so on.

An informed population who cares about their community is the best defence against the odd councillor who ran for election to support their agenda. They work for us, we elected them, and they are accountable to us. We have the right to ask questions. One might argue we have that obligation.

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