The conflict of interest complaint against Vancouver Coun. Michael Wiebe seems to be headed to court, a direction that worries some businesspeople and municipal politicians.
Wiebe, a restaurateur and first-term city councillor with the Vancouver Greens, was the subject of a formal complaint in June after he supported a temporary city-wide patio expansion program to help businesses keep operating in compliance with COVID-19 spacing restrictions. Last month , the lawyer appointed to investigate found Wiebe had violated conflict rules , because he supported the program knowing his own restaurant and pub were affected.
Wiebe has said that if he did make a mistake, it was in good faith, and he doesn’t intend to step down voluntarily, despite the investigator recommending he do so. But the Vancouver Charter allows 10 or more Vancouver electors can apply to the B.C. Supreme Court for an order to remove him.
Now it seems that litigation is imminent — and that means municipal politicians around B.C. are likely watching with interest, even concern.
When Kamloops council approved its own similar patio expansion in the spring, the first business to apply was a coffee shop co-owned by Coun. Denis Walsh, Kamloops This Week reported .
Walsh told Postmedia the matter hasn’t generated controversy in the city, and before voting on Kamloops’ patio program in May, he spoke with the city’s corporate officer.
“I checked with her, and she clearly stated that: ‘Because it’s city-wide, it doesn’t just benefit you, it benefits everybody in the city, so it’s no different than voting on property tax,’” Walsh said. “Because it’s city-wide, in their view, it’s not a conflict of interest. Because where do you stop?”
The prospect of Wiebe going to court and losing his council seat over a vote on a city-wide program concerns Walsh, he said, as it probably does many other municipal politicians with interests in businesses or non-profits.
“I think a lot of councillors would be in trouble if that ruling was actually the new standard. That concerns me,” Walsh said.
Walsh’s colleague, Kamloops Coun. Arjun Singh, said while he doesn’t know the details of Wiebe’s case, the prospect of him losing his seat seems “quite harsh.”
“If I was in Vancouver, I’d say this seems like maybe a bit of a distraction to the work that’s got to get done on homelessness, COVID recovery and other things,” said Singh, a past president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities. “I don’t know how the court’s going to ultimately see it, but I think from the perspective of the community as a whole, is that really the best thing for Vancouver city council to be tied up with right now?”
Wiebe has said a major reason he ran for office was to improve the way city hall interacts with small-business owners, not only for restaurant owners like himself but also other sectors. And in the view of Electric Bicycle Brewery co-owner Elliot McKerr, Wiebe has been this council’s biggest champion for small businesses.
For two years, city hall told McKerr that current zoning wouldn’t allow a brewery to even apply for a patio, he said. “It was just red tape.”
When council approved the temporary expanded patio measures in May, breweries were included.
McKerr credits Wiebe with pushing for patios at breweries , noting that Wiebe doesn’t own a brewery, and several Mount Pleasant breweries a short walk from Wiebe’s restaurant, all potential competitors, stood to benefit from the change.
“He was the only one who was willing to take the issue up and he pressed the issue super-hard,” McKerr said. “I think if he hadn’t brought it to council, it wouldn’t have gotten passed, because no one else cared to look at it, and then all of us would be totally screwed right now. … Ask any brewery in the city, they’re going to tell you the same thing.”
Wiebe “has more understanding of what we have to lose than someone who’s just been a property developer their whole life or whatever else,” McKerr said, adding he worries this whole episode might “make councillors way less likely to listen to small business and help businesses that they have an understanding of.”
Jim McLean, a former business owner in Vancouver, agreed there’s definitely room for improvement in the way city hall engages small and medium-sized employers. McLean was one of a number of newspaper readers who wrote this week to say the treatment of the councillor seemed unduly harsh.
“For something that seems pretty innocent, this seems to have gotten way out of control for this poor guy,” said McLean, who said he doesn’t know Wiebe and has never voted for the Green party. “Beyond this one story, if a politician gets treated like this, I’m sure a lot of people reflect upon it, and think: ‘I’m not even going to put my name in the ring.’”
“Perhaps these rules are a little bit too black and white,” McLean said. “There’s got to be some grey.”
Another reader who contacted the newspaper this week was Marguerite Ford, a five-term Vancouver councillor from 1976 to 1986 with the old TEAM party.
“I personally didn’t see that as a great big conflict,” said Ford, who doesn’t know Wiebe. “It wasn’t just his restaurant. If it had been, that would have been a different story, but if it’s hundreds, I don’t see that it makes a particle of difference.”
If Wiebe were to lose his council seat over this, it could have a chilling effect on people considering running for office, Ford said, especially those involved with businesses.
Ford found it very difficult to convince businesspeople to enter local politics while she was in office, which in those days, consisted of two-year terms, she said. Now that terms are four years, it only further reduces the pool of people willing to run.
“It kind of eliminates a lot of people that might make really good councillors,” she said.
At deadline Friday, no litigation had yet been filed against Wiebe, but people involved said it’s expected soon.