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HomeBusinessExclusive: No conflict of interest for Vancouver councillor who sought public feedback on her website

Exclusive: No conflict of interest for Vancouver councillor who sought public feedback on her website

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Bob Mackin

An external investigation has cleared an NPA Vancouver city councillor of conflict of interest, theBreaker.news has learned.

Lawyer Henry Wood dismissed pro-density activist Peter Waldkirch’s Jan. 16 complaint against Colleen Hardwick, finding no evidence that the 2018-elected councillor used her PlaceSpeak.com civic engagement company improperly.

Waldkirch’s complaint to city manager Sadhu Johnston took issue with a page on the PlaceSpeak website showing Hardwick and an image of city hall with the headline “You don’t need to wait for an election to have your voice heard – I’m listening.” Waldkirch, a research lawyer, alleged that Hardwick was confusing citizens and using public office to benefit her private company.

NPA Coun. Colleen Hardwick (Mackin)

“I do not believe it is appropriate for her to use it for city business and there is at least the appearance of this,” Waldkirch wrote in the email to Johnston, obtained via freedom of information.

Waldkirch went further on Twitter, just over 30 minutes after his initial complaint to Johnston. He publicly accused Hardwick of “attempted privatization” of public engagement and called PlaceSpeak a “black box.”

On housing issues, Waldkirch’s social media messaging aligns with Abundant Housing Vancouver, the coalition of Liberal and NDP activists lobbying city council to rubber-stamp rezonings of single-family houses to make way for townhouses and apartment buildings. AHV associates have frequently targeted Hardwick on social media and in newspaper commentaries since her election on a platform favouring a citywide plan and better consultation with neighbourhoods.

In his May 5 report to Mayor Kennedy Stewart, also obtained via freedom of information, Wood found no evidence of any contravention of the City of Vancouver Code of Conduct or Vancouver Charter.

There was nothing to contradict Hardwick’s assertions that she will give due consideration to all public input, whatever the source, and that the data architecture used by PlaceSpeak ensures the privacy of respondents’ personal data, Wood wrote.

Whether the website presentation implies official city status is beyond city hall’s code and charter, he wrote. As for Hardwick’s financial interest in PlaceSpeak, Wood concluded that Waldkirch’s concern over financial gain was “prospective and speculative.”

“We are dealing with a soft launch of a consultation site on which the only question posed was ‘Do you think that you are being heard by the City of Vancouver?’ There is no obvious potential conflict arising from the substance of that issue,” Wood wrote.

Also in Hardwick’s favour was her purpose for the initial exposure of the page: she was seeking input on potential conflict of interest concerns from the city’s director of legal services. The page in question was taken down after Waldkirch complained and not reactivated during Wood’s investigation.

Peter Waldkirch (LinkedIn)

At the end of his report, Wood offered a “final cautionary note,” after seeing a page on PlaceSpeak seeking feedback on the Broadway Subway extension to the University of B.C. He suggested there is a risk that if PlaceSpeak hosts a topic of significant interest in Vancouver, that “the mythical reasonable elector might become concerned if Coun. Hardwick were to vote in support of that proponent’s position, and that he/she might conclude that her motivation was tainted by the business relationship.”

He suggested that, in such a case, Hardwick might choose to declare an apparent conflict and withdraw from discussion or voting. Wood also wrote that constituents expect their chosen representatives to avoid potential conflicts, so that they can fully participate and vote on matters of civic performance.

Kennedy Stewart’s poster on 4th Ave. (Mackin)

Stewart’s May 13 letter accepted Wood’s dismissal of the complaint and deemed the matter closed.

Waldkirch had no comment. As for Hardwick, she said she is “happy to let the report speak for itself.”

Stewart apparently took Wood’s report as a signal that he could embark on his own type of digital engagement, separate from official city hall communications channels.

On June 6, Stewart sent invitations to those on his 2018 campaign email list to join a new “Van-News Team email group” so he could seek public input, advice and support from both Vancouverites and non-Vancouverites.

“I promise if you join my Van-News Team, you will receive a single monthly email update and up to three invitations every four weeks to attend events, take part in online actions or other activities that will help us build a Vancouver that works for everyone,” said the June 6 email appeal.

Last weekend, attendees of the civic-supported Khatsahlano Street Party on West 4th Avenue noticed posters urging citizens to fill-out a questionnaire on Stewart’s campaign website. The posters recycled a photograph from independent Stewart’s 2018 union-supported mayoral campaign and read: “Have Your Say on Housing: Mayor Kennedy Stewart wants to hear from you.” The posters did not include any of Stewart’s city hall contact information. Stewart’s posters and website are a common tactic used by politicians to build or update voter and donor-targeting databases.

His campaign website, on the NationBuilder political platform, was produced by Van City Studios, a digital ad agency that also worked on his 2015 federal NDP campaign in Burnaby South.

The next scheduled civic election is three-and-a-quarter years away.

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