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Conflict laws must be harsh

By Charlotte Prong Parkhill

In Egypt this week, citizens took to the streets by the thousands to protest new powers President Mohammed Morsi had granted himself, proclaiming that he would be able to govern the country without judicial oversight.

In Canada, many people are bending over backwards to protest just the opposite. How dare an unelected judge oust Toronto Mayor Rob Ford from his seat, they ask. Democracy has gone out the window!

Ford is gone by the end of next week unless he wins a stay, pending an appeal of  the decision handed down  on Monday.

And that’s as it should be. According to the judgement, and the common sense of anyone following the case, Ford flouted municipal conflict of interest laws when he voted on a council motion requesting he return $3,150 that he raised for his charity using improper means.

The motion really had nothing to do with the charity itself. It simply requested that he repay the money. And if the motion on the floor concerns an amount of money to come directly out of the mayor’s pocket, he clearly has a financial interest in that decision.

In municipal politics, it’s a big no-no to vote on motions in which you  have a financial interest, and for good reason.

Locally, the light rail transit decision is a good example. People who own or have family members who own property along the proposed LRT line could have run and been elected to council simply to help push the vote through, thereby enriching themselves with properties that are set to increase in value.

Chair Ken Seiling and the three regional councillors who declared a conflict on that vote were right to do so.

Many people have pointed out that the penalty in Ford’s case may be unnecessarily harsh, and that it is perhaps time to revisit the conflict of interest rules with an eye to setting out a system of varying punishments for varying infractions. But if the rules aren’t extremely black and white, you can be sure these conflict cases will end up in court more frequently as councillors push their luck.

Elected municipal officials should never be above the law, and especially not one that was expressly written for them. It doesn’t matter that the judge is unelected. He is ruling on the law as it was passed by the elected provincial legislature. If, as some have sugested, we “leave this up to the electorate,” then what’s next? If a mayor is caught engaging in bribery and corruption one year into his term, should we turn a blind eye and allow it to continue until the next election?

What happened this week is not a flaw in democracy, but democracy at its finest.

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