Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reminding trustees on conflict of interest

Mike Baillargeon is a man on a mission-- unseat every last neutered trustee elected in 2006 to the Toronto Catholic District School Board. He helped launch the latest missive this month as another two trustees are being brought up on conflict of interest charges at the board. Baillargeon was successful in removing former trustee Oliver Carroll from his post after filing a complaint of conflict of interest some time last year.
The Toronto Sun has been consistent in its coverage and commentary on this issue, the latest of which was tossed my way by a frequent if anonymous tipster as Moira Macdonald has her say in Monday's Sun. From her piece:
Citizen activist Mike Baillargeon -- victor last February in a similar complaint against former board chair Oliver Carroll -- had long hinted he was working on an action against (Barbara) Poplawski and (Angela) Kennedy, dating back to a May 14, 2008 meeting where Carroll also got caught. Baillargeon said he only learned of the conflict of interest incidents involving Poplawski and Kennedy during the proceeding against Carroll.
Even Kennedy told me she and Poplawski had "heard rumblings" Baillargeon might do something with it.
But Ontario's Municipal Conflict of Interest Act gives people just six weeks to file notice of a conflict of interest once they learn about a case of it. Baillargeon went into overtime -- according to him, because he had been (unsuccessfully) trying to get the two trustees to resign instead of going to court -- and lost the ability to move on the matter himself.
The current application names parent Arnaldo Amaral as the complainant. Amaral's lawyer, Stephen D'Agostino, says his client is reluctant to speak to reporters -- too bad, because this is a situation that needs as much transparency as it can get. Court documents say Amaral learned of the conflict allegations in late September from his local trustee, Catherine LeBlanc-Miller.
Agreed. This sounds a tad too coincidental and only serves to bulk up what Macdonald is insinuating. Of course, if you consider the Sun also published a piece earlier this year from Baillargeon himself, filled with exclamatory statements and frequent use of the word "resign," is there much work left to show he appears obsessed with ousting all remaining trustees from a board that has essentially been neutered until after the 2010 vote? Macdonald has been a supporter of the cause, given its implications for overall governance, however I question at what point in Baillargeon's quest we move from righteous to simply obsessed.
That said, I was one of the few reporters outside the GTA bubble to report on the Baillargeon v. Carroll case's ruling (I did so in June, as budgets were being finalized). The ruling extends the consideration of conflict, noting that pecuniary interest extends to family members regardless of a trustee's individual ability to impact on their relative's financial outcome. I also posted about it here, in a rare item on my own reporting.
I suspect based on my own observations at the time budgets were passed earlier this year that despite various legal opinions obtained by trustee associations and board solicitors on the ruling, most trustees with family employed by the board they serve on voted for budgets anyway. Locally, there were no staffing cuts to employee groups where trustee family members worked, therefor per a strict comparison to the Carroll case, it could be harder to draw a conclusion of conflict under the act.
As the ruling notes, Carroll very obviously and overtly went about influencing the vote to avoid staffing cuts that could have reasonably impacted his family members. Both of the family members in question were very low on seniority lists and could have reasonably seen their positions axed or get bumped out of any other job by a member with more seniority.
As Thames Valley District School Board chair James Stewart noted in my June article, the reality is the vast majority of trustees have zero direct influence over staffing since they're not involved on most hiring committees and the payroll budget is largely dictated by the Ministry of Education through the Grants for Student Needs and other legislation.
The nature of these two new allegations is similar to the Carroll one, that these two trustees influenced the vote to protect jobs at the TCDSB as part of the 2008-09 budget votes. Both have relatives employed by the board, although there's no indication in coverage to-date whether any or all would have been as threatened by cuts as Carroll's relatives.
The two new cases should serve as a warning to those trustees in similar situations they're subject to the same accusations.


Anonymous said...

Do you think that the impetus for Bill 177 was the mess at TCDSB?

If one were to look close enough at all boards in the province I think we'd find lots of relatives of trustees on the payroll.

I have recently heard of a case where a system bureaucrat was able to land their new teacher grad. a full-time teaching position in the board of choice when others can't find full-time positions.

I don't think that hiring issues at the TCDSB is an isolated one.

It's very interesting that since the gov't took over this board from the trustees the sky hasn't fallen and students are still being educated. The gov't may have just stumbled on a pilot project of their own making re: eliminating trustees in Ontario completely.

Some communities wouldn't miss their trustees because they have little or no profile to speak of because the heavy lifting and profile has become the territory of board administration and some who have even less connection to their communities.

Anonymous said...

To the question "do you think the impetus for Bill 177 was the mess at TCDSB"


While the government may never actually get rid of Trustees there does seem to be a trend to strip Trustees of any real power.

Soon the only thing left will be to answer the phone when the angry parent calls.....something the Ministry doesn't want to have to deal with.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 7:54 beat me to it re: Bill 177

Anon. 8:45 interesting comments. I have to wonder why trustees just sat back and watched their roles erode?
It didn't happen over-night you'd think that trustees would have fought back before now.

I wonder if this government will put trustees in charge of managing the Parent Involvement Committees that essentially replace those regional committees boards had for councils?


RetDir said...

As an interesting conflict of interest sidelight, smaller boards can get in real difficulty with this. If memory serves me right the Huron Perth CDSB was in a position in which all of its trustees were in conflict at one point, and took out advertisements in the local newspapers asking if anyone would object to the trustees voting on matters such as budget and contract settlements. No-one did, so they went ahead and voted in spite of clearly being in conflict. Which begs the questions of whether people who are going to be in conflict should be allowed to run.

Education Reporter said...

There's nothing in the act preventing people from running even if they're loaded with potential conflicts of interest. For either trustee or municipal office.

I think there needs to be some clarification from the government on this-- to what degree a trustee is actually in conflict when s/he might abstain from staffing votes but still vote on approval of the budget as a whole.


Anonymous said...

"I think there needs to be some clarification from the government on this....."


Also in regards to small communities it seems that everyone is related to someone, who's related to someone else. When it's tough getting folks interested in being trustees are we at the point where we take who we get even if they do stand in conflict. Perhaps if the gov't is committed to hanging on to elected trustees it could spend some time on establishing their roles in a way that would peak interest in candidates at election time?

I noticed that one of the criticisms in Bluewater was that there were too many ex-principals sitting on the board.


RetDir said...

I think that you would find that the reason the TCDSB issue stood out is that they were actively trying to influence the staffing levels in a way that might have been to the benefit of their relatives by voting to staff at levels higher than the contracts and funding would have staffed. This would stand out in any board, as most staffing is not a trustee/board matter.
Personally I don't see a conflict when a trustee votes for the budget as a whole, but there is a clear conflict when they try to influence decisions in such a way as to benefit relatives.

Anonymous said...

Yes Bill 177 was a result of the TCDSB. Readers, should be aware of the Machiavellian activity that some of those bunch of back stabbers are carrying out. MacDonald alludes to that in her column. Also the current chair Kennedy "conflict" is a non-starter because her son never did take the job with the board anyway.

This is a witch-hunt for sure.

Education Reporter said...

I don't think you're going to see clarification from the Ministry of Education-- the legislation is under the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing's purvue. Clarification is still needed however.

I get your point about working / etc. / in smaller communities and how that makes it harder to avoid conflict. It's not impossible however, and I don't believe that should be an excuse.

It's possible if these two trustees' cases make it through trial to judgment that the justice might add a few shades of grey to the issue.

Until then, I agree that Carroll stepped way over the line. There's no doubt he actively worked to benefit the employment status of his family. Any other trustee with family in the system voting for or against a budget? I don't see how that is as much of a conflict.

Coincidentally, this very question came up at a Thames Valley meeting I was at Tuesday. Trustees didn't seem to understand it-- first, they've all received advice from the board solicitor. Second, one sat there and asked whether the director or chair would be advising or ruling on conflict declarations. Re-read the act. The only person who can advise a trustee on whether s/he should declare a conflict is his/her own lawyer. Not the board lawyer. Not the chair. Not staff.