A section of provincial law required a Mission councillor to vote Monday night on a motion dealing with a conflict of interest allegation aimed at himself.
Coun. Dave Hensman was joined by Mayor Ted Adlem and Coun. Larry Nundal in opposition to the motion, and the legally required two-thirds majority of council was not gained, defeating an effort to refer the allegation of a conflict of interest against Hensman to the B.C. Supreme Court.
Earlier this month, Coun. Nelson Tilbury suggested Hensman may have been in a conflict of interest for holding a lease in a building nearby the former Buy Low building on Welton Street, which was purchased by the district in December, as part of a downtown revitalization initiative. Hensman was part of a unanimous council vote to approve that purchase.
A motion that would have seen the conflict allegation referred to a judge for a ruling failed as council followed the provincial Community Charter Act which governs such votes.
Couns. Jeff Jewell, Jenny Stevens, Tony Luck, and Tilbury voted in favour of sending the matter to court, but five votes in support were required by law.
Councillors debated the issue for over an hour.
Tilbury, who made the motion to send the matter before a judge, justified the move as providing Hensman an opportunity to clear the air in front of an impartial audience.
Other councillors agreed.
“I would love to have taken everything Coun. Hensman has said for gospel and be done with it, but I do still have questions in my head,” said Stevens. “Can I in all conscience say that I am … absolutely positive that there are no grounds to these allegations, and I can’t.”
During the debate, Hensman and Adlem suggested Stevens was also in conflict because she owned a residential property a few blocks from the downtown. Stevens explained that the matters are entirely different, as she needs to live in the downtown because she has mobility difficulties. She also made the purchase with the full knowledge of all other councillors. Jewell and Tilbury publicly stated they did not know of Hensman’s lease until recently.
“You cannot clear your good name by attacking somebody else,” Jewell told Hensman.
Nundal was absent from the meeting but participated sporadically over speakerphone, that was difficult to make out in chambers.
Nundal said the cost of going to court would not be justified because it is highly unlikely the court woulds find that Hensman was in conflict. Going to court “would be the easy thing to do to get it off the table, but I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”
When it came to vote, Jewell noted the strangeness of having Hensman vote on a matter of which he was a subject.
Chief administrative officer Ken Bjorgaard then recommended that council delay the decision until Wednesday, Jan. 22, so that district staff could seek legal advice. Adlem and Luck said advice was not needed.
Hensman asked if he could volunteer to refrain from the vote, to which several councillors first replied, “yes,” another said “I don’t know,” and finally Adlem re-read the relevant Charter line.
“The Act clearly says, two-thirds of all council members. Whether you like it or not, you’re still a council member. And that means you have, under the Act, the right to vote,” Adlem told Hensman.
Adlem said that if Hensman abstains, the result is a vote “in the affirmative.”
Audience member and former councillor Ron Taylor tried to shed light on the Charter from the public seat, to calls of “you’re out of order” from the councillors. Taylor then approached the council table to show a document that he thought would help.
In the final comment before the vote, Luck – who supported sending the matter to court – said it was an opportunity for Hensman to clear his name.
“I think this is a tough situation for Coun. Hensman, for the rest of council, for CRMG (Citizens for Responsible Municipal Government), and for the public…I think moving forward, as they say, not only do we have to do the right thing, but we have to be seen to do the right thing.”
After the vote, several residents stormed out.
Janet Chalmers, who ran for council in 2011, said she was not concerned about the potential high cost of going to court.
“It should go to trial. It should be figured out whether that man is in conflict or not.”
Rhonda Cushnie, executive director of the Mission Downtown Business Association, was concerned about the perception created at the council meeting.
“As Tony Luck said, you have to be perceived as doing the right thing. And I’m wondering what the public is going to say about the whole thing…I’m afraid of what’s going to happen now. I’m afraid of what people are going to say…My concern for Coun. Hensman is that people may come to conclusions without him being able to defend himself.”
In a press release Thursday, Hensman has claimed that the cost of going to court would be a “minimum $60,000,” a waste of taxpayer money for the “fishing expedition to try and bring credibility to his (Tilbury’s) false and erroneous claims.”
(An early online version of this story and the Jan. 22 print edition of the Abbotsford-Mission News incorrectly indicated that it was council’s decision to allow Coun. Hensman to vote on the motion. The provincial Community Charter Act requires that all councillors must vote. The Abbotsford-Mission News apologizes for any confusion this may have caused.)