School closures raise conflict of interest concern
It may not be against any Burlington council rules, but councillor should remain impartial
Judge for yourself, but it seems that Meed Ward’s participation in the PARC would have been in violation of this Code (of Conduct). Note that the code says councillors should avoid the appearance of conflict, too.
Many people in Burlington are raising questions about the involvement of a city councillor in the Halton District School Board’s (HDSB) recommendation to close Lester B. Pearson and Robert Bateman secondary schools. The divisive process began with a director’s recommendation to close Pearson and Central schools, but the director’s final report saved Central from closure and recommends Bateman be closed instead. One of Central’s parent representatives in the school closure process was Ward 2 Councillor Marianne Meed Ward.
When I first became aware that Meed Ward had a formal role in the HDSB’s secondary school closure review, it seemed strange. There is a tradition in many communities of city councils and school boards avoiding interference in each others’ affairs. Meed Ward is one of two parents from Central High School who are part of the board’s Pupil Accommodation Review Committee (PARC), which is made up of 14 parents from different secondary schools.
Then when I saw her photographed at a Queen’s Park news conference with Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown holding a “Save Central” poster and advocating for the end of the PARC process in Ontario, I became more concerned.
Also, at city council meetings, Meed Ward twice launched aggressive takedowns of Coun. Paul Sharman’s motion to have council ask the provincial government to suspend the school closure review, despite the fact she pushed for a similar idea four weeks earlier with Brown.
With these two performances in mind, what could Meed Ward’s motive be to serve on the PARC? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion it is about the promotion of her political fortunes and little else.
How could this have happened? The City of Burlington has a draft Council Code of Conduct that has been debated but never passed.
The code states that councillors “shall avoid the improper use of the influence of their office and shall avoid conflicts of interest, both apparent and real.” Under “Improper Use of Influence,” the draft code says: “Members of council should not use the status of their position to influence the decision of another individual to the private advantage of oneself, or one’s parents, children or spouse, staff members, friends, or associates, business or otherwise.”
It was never voted on, however, so the city has no code of conduct in force.
Judge for yourself, but it seems that Meed Ward’s participation in the PARC would have been in violation of this code. Note that the code says councillors should avoid the appearance of conflict, too.
Even without the code, simple logic tells us that Meed Ward’s two roles are conflicting. She cannot, without conflict, simultaneously represent the interests of Central school at the PARC and the interests of the City of Burlington.
As just one illustration of this conflict, Centennial Pool, which is attached to Bateman, is owned by the school board but operated by the city, and was recently renovated at the city’s expense for $3 million.
How can Meed Ward protect the city’s interest in Centennial Pool and at the same time represent a group that seeks to keep Central open at the expense of Bateman, affecting the viability of the pool?
As citizens, we should all be asking why city council has not passed the Council Code of Conduct, and what, if anything, Meed Ward has done to manage her conflicts.
The bottom line is that city council should pass and enforce its Code of Conduct and the school board should prevent elected officials from participating in the PARC as school representatives.
While Meed Ward portrays herself as simply a concerned parent, if that was her only motive, she could have avoided any appearance of conflict by allowing another parent to sit on the PARC while providing support in the background. Instead, she has seized the opportunity to raise her profile while asserting her right as a parent to be on the PARC and denying any conflict because there is no code.
Ultimately, this is a missed opportunity to teach our children some important lessons. As an adult, you have to make choices: parent representative or city councillor. And just because something isn’t explicitly prohibited, that doesn’t make it right.
Jim Dunn is the parent of a Burlington elementary school student who should have attended Bateman.
Supporters of Robert Bateman High School rally in March as they lobbied to avoid closure of the Burlington high school.