Conflict of Interest - April 1, 2019

To:  Mayor and Councillors, Oak Bay Council and Mr. B. Anderson, Planning Department; Chief Administrative Officer; Director of Corporate Services

Re:  Advisory Planning Commission membership and Conflict of Interest Z0N00034/DP000022

On 14 August 2018 the attached letter was sent to Mayor and Council.  The topic was perceived conflict of interest when Virginia Holden, a member of the Advisory Planning Commission, gave a ‘workshop’ on affordable housing to the Commission at its July 3 2018 meeting. She gave this workshop in her role as Director of Housing Policy in the Housing Policy Branch of the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
Incidentally, the minutes of this meeting were not posted on Oak Bay’s Municipal website until  Friday  29 March 2019 after we alerted Municipal Hall that the minutes had never been posted, although they were adopted at a meeting on February 5 2019.

In response to our letter of 14 August 2018, we received replies from then-councillors Murdoch and Green who acknowledged that this was something to be watched, which we have done.  (Copies of their replies have been included at the end of this email.) 

For the past year and more, we have been submitting Freedom of Information requests to BC Housing concerning the proposed Oak Bay United Church development. The following disclosure is from our Freedom of Information request 292-30-13218.

It appears that Ms. Holden and BC Housing are collaborating on the OBUC development project. Based on the correspondence included in the FOI, it appears she has had private meetings and discussions with BC Housing on this topic. 

On 4 November 2018 she wrote to Malcolm McNaughton and Armin Amrolia of BC Housing – “Thanks for taking the time to meet with me on Friday. It was great to see you both and appreciate your willingness and flexibility for me to work with your team. Overall, I am interested to start something with BC Housing in the new year in some shape or form.  In terms of Oak Bay United, (redacted) I just want to understand what the possibilities are….I walked through the neighbourhood around the OB church yesterday to get a better sense of the neighbours` concerns more clearly.”

On 8 November 2018, she wrote “I met with the Chair of the Oak Bay planning commission as well as the other members on Tuesday (redacted) I would just need to step out of deliberations any time that the project is discussed or reviewed. This is common practice whenever there is a perceived conflict of interest to the project under discussion. Given this decision, I would be interested working with BC Housing”.
(We should point out that all of the grammatical errors are hers – we have merely copied her correspondence.)
Our FOI ran from October 5 to November 8, 2018, so unfortunately we do not have any further information to convey, although we are waiting momentarily for the next one. However, we firmly believe there is enough in what we have received to date to be very concerned.

We understand that Ms. Holden was taking a leave of absence from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing so she could look after her children – she stated this at the July 3 2018 meeting of the APC. We don`t know what has transpired since in terms of her employment, but t certainly appears that she has been seeking a contract with BC Housing since then.

We entirely appreciate that it is common practice when confronted with a perceived or real conflict of interest to recuse oneself from any discussions or deliberations that concern an issue at hand – and, to her credit, Ms. Holden does seem to recognize this. However, when someone declares a conflict they are obliged NOT to discuss anything about a proposed project with those who are involved in providing advice or making a recommendation on a proposal. We have no way of knowing what information or views she has shared with other members of the APC about the OBUC project, although we know she met with them to discuss her situation. This is unusual – it should not have required a meeting, she should have immediately recognized she had a conflict – and that SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE END OF ANY DISCUSSION with any members of the APC.  Of course, unless she understands this (and why should we think she does understand this) her continued presence as a member of the APC provides her with ample opportunities for side-bar chats with other members. To say the least, this whole situation is very worrisome.

It is entirely inadequate that she only proposes to recuse herself from public discussions on the OBUC project when she has already spoken to the members privately and appears to be acting as a paid agent of BC Housing and the developer. This is something that needs to be investigated as quickly as possible.
During the recent municipal election, you, as our mayor and council, promised more transparency. We feel you should be aware of this significant information and urge you to take immediate appropriate action so that this submission is judged fairly and independently by the commission and by council. 

Concerned Citizens Network Oak Bay

On behalf of Concerned Citizens Network of Oak Bay:   Wayne Todd, Maggie Bolitho, Barbara Judson, Catherine Griffiths, Diana Butler, Wayne Randall, Alan Bolitho, Garen Kassabian, Curtis Hobson, Matt Stooke.  Citizens of Oak Bay. 

Note: a copy of the original text in the FOI report is available upon request.


Letter sent to Mayor and Council on August 14 2018 from a concerned citizen, Concerned Citizens Network Oak Bay

At the July 3 2018 meeting of the District of Oak Bay Advisory Planning Commission, committee member Virginia Holden, who is also Director of Housing Policy in the Housing Policy Branch of the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, gave a presentation to committee members on housing affordability. Some local citizens who attended this meeting as observers and took notes felt that this was clearly a sales-pitch for the contentious OBUC affordable housing project. She stressed the need to identify and help non-profit sites that need redevelopment. She described now as a time when "the stars have aligned" and wanted other members of committee to know what a perfect time it was for non-profits, among others, to take advantage of all the affordable housing funding available from BC Housing, the Community Housing Fund, the Federal Government, CRD, and how Density-bonusing is being promoted with municipalities, including exemptions from property taxes for 10 years for those developers. She spoke about municipalities being encouraged to streamline and hasten the process of rezoning applications for these developers. She plans to give part II of the presentation to committee members at the next meeting in September.  It sounds as if  BC Housing is giving advice to developers on how to speed their developments through local councils without having to go through due-process.
As part of the Advisory Planning Commission’s mandate is “To advise Council on matters respecting land use, community planning, or proposed bylaws and certain permits under Part 26 of the Local Government Act. And Official Community Plan amendment applications, rezoning applications and land use contract amendments to ensure proposed developments comply with the policies and objectives of the Official Community Plan”  might I suggest that there is a conflict of interest in Ms. Holden’s dual roles as Director of Housing Policy in the Policy Branch of BC Housing and a member of the Advisory Planning Commission who will be advising Council on the Oak Bay United Church/BC Housing’s massive mixed income building project.   The OBUC has already appeared before council asking that their project be streamlined and expedited (which failed).   I hope that Ms. Holden’s planned part II in September will be reconsidered.  It is clearly inappropriate.
Responses received to the above letter
From Kevin Murdoch

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Conflict of interest is important to keep an eye on. By my assessment, there is probably no "actionable" issue here, but rather something for a mayor to talk to members about directly.  In general, conflict of interest is self-declared. In areas where there is no clear, direct financial benefit to someone by their actions, it is a judgement call by the individual. For elected officials it's a bit more of an issue, as we are held accountable every few years by the electorate, so perceived conflict of interest has as much weight as technical / direct.  
The other factor here is that the Advisory Planning Commission (APC) is an advisory body only - they don't make any decisions. As such, their exposure to conflict of interest is quite low.
Of course, the members are allowed to have opinions (even strong opinions). Most problems with APCs come generally where they are seen to be advocating for a particular development, particularly before it comes before them formally with staff input. That, again, should be fairly blatant to action. In the end, Council will very rarely remove a member, but issues around performance come up when Council (annually) determines whether to renew their membership on the committees or commissions.

Kind Regards,

From: Cairine Green []
Sent: Thursday, August 16, 2018 4:05 PM
To: Barbara Judson
Subject: Re: Perceived conflict of interest Advisory Planning Commision

Barbara, many thanks for your email message.  
Having been a Councillor in two communities, North Saanich and Oak Bay, and as a current volunteer Commission member in Oak Bay (Heritage Commission), my experience has taught me that every volunteer Commission member must always be careful about real or perceived conflicts of interest when serving the municipality and the public.  As you know, Commission members are not only volunteers but also agents of the Municipality, given that Mayor and Council ratify volunteer appointments.  
Commissions have a more formal mandate, unlike committees, task forces or working groups. Commissions are standing committees, are created through a bylaw and, therefore, have a unique relationship with Mayor and Council because of their role and responsibility in making decisions on specific referrals from Council that are later brought back to Council as recommendations for Council’s final decision.
I have found through many years of volunteering and as an elected official, that conflict of interest can be a concept not always well understood.  In the case of municipal government, elected Council members are reminded of conflict of interest from time to time but the final decision about whether or not the member may be in conflict rests with the individual Councillor.  That being said, it’s always good practice to obtain independent legal advice if there is any doubt.  The best advice I had was that if one thinks or feels they might have a conflict, then they probably do and should always err on the side of caution.
You may be interested in a precedent-setting case from North Saanich in 2005, on Conflict of Interest, Godfrey vs. Bird, where a North Saanich Councillor, Bill Bird, was disqualified from holding office.  A group of 10 concerned citizens took Mr. Bird to Court and won. There is a real lesson here for anyone elected to local government, given that the majority of decisions made are about land use.
The best advice that I can give you in this case is to share your concerns with Mayor and Council and with senior staff.  Thanks for getting in touch with me.


All of the above is a great concern, exacerbated by the erratic schedule of this Commission as reported here:


Remember the survey

21 January 2019

To Mayor and Council,
Oak Bay                                                                      

 Remember the Survey ?  Housing Strategy update.

When the Oak Bay-wide survey was taken in advance of preparing the Community Plan, a lot of good information was gathered. When the topic of housing was surveyed, the following list of housing options were considered by the public to be the least acceptable in any development:

  • building height increases

  • inclusion of triplexes and fourplexes in existing single-family residential areas

  • allowing very small units (such as 300 square feet) to allow for more units in a building

  • developers encroaching on single family zones

The survey also reported that residents did not trust the motivations of developers to propose or carry out what is best for a neighbourhood and nearby residents. A common opinion was that they are motivated solely by money. Developers not following through on promises of community amenities and approvals of variance applications allowing developers to realize higher profits can cause problems for neighbourhoods.  Developers are the only ones who win “while the neighbourhood pays the price.”

Unfortunately many developers seem to treat the ‘public input’ suggestion on the Zoning Amendment process information sheet with contempt.  The suggestion that “Applicant encouraged to undertake neighbourhood consultation to obtain public input” is just a suggestion and is not required or mandatory.

Citizens often face an unfair process when developers decide to get public input:

  • questionnaires ask leading (or misleading) questions,

  • meetings are planned for deliberately inconvenient times (the period just before Christmas for example),

  • input from participants from outside the affected area is solicited, manipulation and misinterpretation of data collected –

  • and much much more.  

Some developers seem merely to go through the motions with no intention of listening or implementing any neighbourhood input.

The requirement of a prescriptive and standardized Neighbourhood Consultation Process for all developers would add an element of fairness for all involved.  The use of the IAP2 Participation Spectrum defining the public’s role in any public participation process might be a good starting point.

DO IT RIGHT was the message from the Survey. Go slow with change, make changes that are well thought through, well researched in other communities and are intentional and according to a plan, not ad hoc. Please, mayor and council, remember what citizens said in the survey.

It is good news that mayor and council will begin work on Strategic Goals, including a housing strategy, thank you for this.

Photo from Pexel

Photo from Pexel

 B. Judson