A court hearing that could remove the mayor and two councillors from office in Langley Township began Monday morning in Vancouver Supreme Court.
A group of 10 local voters have petitioned the court to remove Mayor Jack Froese, Councillors Bob Long, and Blair Whitmarsh from office due to conflict of interest. Former Coun. Angie Quaale, who lost in the 2018 election, is also a target of the petition.
The case centers on alleged conflicts of interest caused by campaign donations to the council members from employees of development firms during the 2018 campaign.
The timing of votes on specific development projects related to the campaign donors will be at issue, said Mark Underhill, the lawyer for the 10 voters.
There is no need to demonstrate that the council members or mayor were “on the take” or directly agreed to vote in exchange for a donation, Underhill said.
“What I want to show you is in fact this legislation, the common law, going back over a century, is all about insuring the integrity of local government… and that the electorate can have the confidence that they have, in the words of the case law, ‘the undivided loyalty of their elected officials,’” Underhill said.
Underhill anticipates that lawyers for the council members will say that they always acted in the public interest and that there was no influence caused by the donation.
“We say, with the greatest of respect, those assertions are completely irrelevant,” said Underhill.
Underhill told Justice Paul Walker that the case will focus on the timing of the donations.
The donations, from senior executives and owners of development firms, were made while the developments were “in stream,” or in other words, were working their way through the process of application and consideration by the council.
The money was donated close to the dates of votes on those developments, Underhill said.
“It’s measured, in many cases, in days before or after the votes,” he said. “At the outside a couple of months, three months. But it’s more often the case that it’s days and weeks.”
That is significant because in 2016, the Township councillors received a legal opinion about a previous conflict of interest question.
The so-called Lidstone opinion noted that there was no conflict of interest when a councillor voted on a development put forward by a company or person they had received campaign contributions from in the past.
However, the report noted there might be conflict arrising from donations under some circumstance – including if the development was “in stream” at the time of the donation.
“That is what we say is precisely the facts of this case that is before you,” Underhill said, adding that the council had been “on notice” because of the ruling about exactly this sort of issue.
He also noted that those donations were not disclosed by the councillors until after the election, and they did not seek legal advice from the Township before voting.
The Lidstone opinion raised a “ginormous red flag,” which was ignored, Underhill argued.
Lawyers for Froese, Long, Whitmarsh, and Quaale are expected to make their case starting later in the week.
None of the allegations made in court has been ruled on yet by Walker.
The full hearing is expected to take four days, but scheduling might mean the last arguments are heard on Friday, Dec. 4.
The information about the developer donations was revealed in an anonymously-authored report released in 2019 and publicized by former mayor Rick Green.
A number of other candidates, successful and unsuccessful, also received campaign contributions from various people tied to developers, but were not named in the petition to unseat the councillors.