This could turn out to be an historic court case in British Columbia, perhaps in Canada. This case goes to the core of our democratic systems.
(Update end of hearing on Day 2 – The morning session today April 1 had the lawyer for Meggs/Robertson present their case, followed by a response by the Petioners’ lawyer. The hearing ended at about 2:30 pm with Justice Meyers saying he will reserve judgement. It is not known how many days or weeks will be needed for the Court decision. More about the case here.)
Stay tuned for an upcoming report of the process.
Starting on Tuesday, March 31 and ending in the afternoon of Wednesday, April 1, 2015, the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver heard from both sides of a citizen-launched action asking the Court to determine if Mayor Gregor Robertson and Councillor Geoff Meggs were in conflict of interest during the 2014 civic election when they accepted in-kind support and large political donations that were “not unconditional” from union CUPE 1004, whose contract expires this December. The case: Helten and others v. Robertson and Meggs (Supreme Court of British Columbia Action No. S149646).
MR. JUSTICE MYERS
HELTEN ET AL V. ROBERTSON
March 31 and April 1, 2015
Case: VA S149646
If the Court disqualifies Robertson and Meggs from holding public office, they could be forced to step down, and replaced by the next vote winners, or a by-election, or there could be some other remedy. Beyond the specific organizations and individuals involved, this case may address some fundamental questions of what is acceptable in our society in terms of political donations.
The hearing is open to the public. Citizens are encouraged to attend and listen to the lawyers’ presentations from both sides. This is about the integrity of the electoral process.
A chronology of events and links to media coverage are available at this link in our “Cases” menu: www.cityhallwatch.wordpress.com/cases/robertson-meggs/
The case is based on a leaked audio recording of a preelection meeting in which Geoff Meggs says “Gregor Robertson, our mayor, has again recommitted to not expand contracting out, to make sure that wherever we can bring in new processes, that members of ‘10four’ will be there delivering those services.” Later in the meeting, a CUPE 1004 representative says: “I’ll be frank, we looked at the Vision money because the object is to keep the NPA out of this election … we looked at how much money we’d have to spend to curry favour with Vision in the next round of negotiations … our support is not unconditional.”
The donation to Vision Vancouver was reportedly $102,000 from CUPE 1004, including matching funds from other CUPE branches. Yet according to documents filed with Elections BC, CUPE gave a total of $230,900 to Vision, comprising 64 per cent of all campaign contributions from trade unions to Vision. Official documents filed by Vision Vancouver with Elections BC show “significant” contributions (which includes cash and in-kind) over $250 totalling $2,844,739, comprised of corporations ($1,917,822.98), individuals (554,476.29), trade unions (360.270.00) and non-profits ($12,170.00).
This case focuses on just one specific donor, based on the leaked audio recording, but one wonders if the approach to large donors in the development industry and union sector is systemic. Is this case the tip of the iceberg, or an anomaly? Having received so much money to get elected, are certain officials now in office constrained by certain commitments to donors, unknown to the public? Are they unable to put the public interest first?
In The Province, Sam Cooper talks to the petitioners’ lawyer, David Wotherspoon: In an interview Wotherspoon said his argument about what is heard on the CUPE 1004 meeting tape will be that the city’s upcoming contract negotiations with the union later this year appear to have been undermined, and this could harm the city’s democratic election system. “A lot of our position is about the integrity of the electoral process,” Wotherspoon said. “Electors have to have confidence that their elected officials are acting in the best interest of the electors. It is a fundamental part of our democracy. “And when you have a circumstance where there is an appearance of an implicit agreement to compromise a negotiation position for a financial benefit, the electors have reason to be concerned, and that is what the case is about.”
The response by Meggs and Robertson so far was first to discredit the audio recording as “quadruple hearsay.” That defense collapsed in preliminary negotiations between the lawyers, but for some reason, their lawyer has left it in the text of the court-filed response filed March 23. They have tried to have the case thrown out as “an abuse of the Court’s process.”
They have also shifted to a strategy of claiming that “the recording is incomplete or has been edited or both.” (This tactic has already been refuted by a statement by investigative reporter Bob Mackin, who posted online the two key parts of the leaked audio. See “Freelancer says Vancouver Mayor Robertson, Coun. Meggs ‘not genuine’ in changing their tune on incriminating recording,” in The Province, by Sam Cooper, 26-March-2015).
Their next ploy has been to attack the motives of the citizens involved in the case, saying “this petition is nothing more than a desperate attempt by Mr. Helten and others to use the courts for political purposes.” In his affidavit, Mr. Meggs refers to each petitioner by name, and states that he considers their actions “to be a direct attack on my personal integrity and honestly.”
He and Robertson do not personally know all the petitioners or their long track records of civic involvement to seek integrity of government.
Another ploy has been an attempt to “change the channel” and to challenge the citizens’ funding for the legal action, a strategy first initiated by Georgia Straight’s editor Charlie Smith, whose paper wholeheartedly supported Vision Vancouver in the “Straight Slate” recommendations for voters in the 2014 election.
Robertson and Megg’s defense is believed to be funded by their party, Vision Vancouver, which is in turn largely funded by developers and trade unions. The Petitioners’ action is funded by donations from scores of individuals.
Beyond this court action, there are many other unresolved issues with the 2014 civic election, in which Vision Vancouver scraped by several hundred extra votes to maintain a majority of 7 seats on the 11-person City Council. See for example “25 things the Chief Election Officer should analyze/report on: Election 2014 Vancouver.” Unfortunately, despite protests, and due to inaction by the Provincial Government, the City destroyed crucial evidence from the election, when the Chief Election Officer destroyed ballots and all related election materials in January. Questions remain unanswered about irregularities in the vote counts. City Council has instructed staff to conduct a review of the 2014 election, including the multitude of complaints about election irregularities, though no date was set for reporting back to Council.
This entire discussion should also be seen in the context of provincial legislation on local election political donations. As CityHallWatch has reported on extensively, British Columbia is the wild, wild west in terms of political donations. For the 2014 civic elections, not only did the Provincial Government ignore the public’s strongest requests to institute serious limits on political donations, it went so far as extending the term of office by another year to four years. Across Metro Vancouver it was mostly incumbents who were re-elected.
A committee is currently at the final phase of hearings for public input to the “Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits,” as reported here. The last chance in Vancouver is April 9, 2015, and we encourage many citizens to write or sign up to speak to the Committee. But note that again, the Provincial government is failing in one serious aspect: The Committee is only able to discuss elections expenses. The topic of donations and contributions is left for some unknown time later this century.
Meanwhile, many other major jurisdictions in Canada not only have solid limits on political donations, they also ban corporate and union donations. Some even ban political parties at the municipal level.
The fact that the five citizens felt compelled to launch this case goes right to the core of our democratic systems in British Columbia. The failure of the Provincial Government to fix the system leaves very few tools for ordinary citizens to act when they see what appears to be wrong.
How will the Court view things? It there Justice in our justice system?
Will media, if they cover this story, will they put it in context of the bigger problems with political donations in British Columbia? Or focus on the minutia and distractions? Will they put this on page one, or bury it on page 60? Besides the few leading reporters and papers that have shown an interest in the story, will it be up to individuals to bring it to the fore through social media?
Perhaps the court of public opinion will some day have the final say.