Executives from major development firms donated to the campaigns of several Langley Township council candidates while their projects were still under consideration.
First reported by a regional television news outlet, the donations to Township candidates came from a number of development executives, including some from Mitchell Group Investments, Vesta Properties, and the Beedie Group.
On Friday, former Township mayor Rick Green posted an anonymous report on his website, which listed dozens of donations to four candidates, including Mayor Jack Froese, Councillors Blair Whitmarsh and Bob Long, and former councillor Angie Quaale, who was narrowly defeated in the 2018 municipal election.
“It’s the issue of the timing of the donations,” said Green. The report notes various donations being given within days or weeks of significant votes on projects.
The anonymous report cites a legal opinion from the Township’s own lawyers that suggests a possible conflict of interest if councillors accept donations while considering a project from those developers.
By Monday, Froese had released a statement and a new legal opinion from the same law firm finding no conflict of interest.
“As mayor of the Township of Langley, I consider allegations of conflict of interest against any member of council extremely serious,” wrote Froese.
The legal opinion from Don Lidstone says “In my opinion, unless there is direct evidence linking the campaign contribution to the council member’s vote… it is unlikely a court would find they had a pecuniary conflict of interest with respect to the matter.”
“I unequivocally state that donations to my campaign have never influenced my decisions in the past nor will they in the future,” said Froese.
The other councillors accused also said there was no influence on their votes.
“I see no correlation at all with any of the data collection and my voting patterns – I have been on council for 20 consecutive years and generally support development,” Long said.
He rejected any suggestion that someone could buy influence over him in any way.
“My decisions are influenced only by community considerations, planning principles, fairness, and common sense,” said Long.
“Certainly I have never made a decison where I’ve gone back to previous donations and reflected on those and used that as a way to determine how I should vote. I’ve always voted on what’s best for Langley,” said Whitmarsh.
However, the report leaves out the fact that other successful candidates, who were not on council at the time, also received donations from many of the same building executives.
Coun. Steve Ferguson received campaign contributions in 2018 from Todd Yuen and Ryan Beedie of the Beedie Group, Kent Sillars of Vesta Properties, and Ryan O’Shea of Mitchell Group, and others.
Coun. Margaret Kunst, who was also newly elected to the council in 2018, received money from a number of the executives – including donations from Sillars and Tim Bontkes of Infinity Properties.
Green said he knows who sent him the report, but he told the Langley Advance Times that he was keeping that person’s identity confidential.
Some projects, particularly large or controversial applications, can be before the council for months, or can be turned down or deferred to be retooled.
For example, a housing development in Fernridge at 204th Street and 28th Avenue was first put before the council in 2017. Ann Blaauw, whose family was planning to develop the property, donated $1,200 to Froese in 2018.
The development was given final approval in 2019.
Others have a long run up time.
The anonymous report notes that five executives of the Mitchell Group donated to various candidates, though they donated different amounts, at different times, and not all executives donated to all candidates.
The Mitchell Group is a major landowner in the Williams neighbourhood in northeast Willoughby, and the neighbourhood plan for Williams was approved in 2018, after a lengthy process of community consultation dating back to 2016.
Council approved the third reading of the plan in early May, with only Coun. Kim Richter opposed. A fourth and final reading was still required, but this is often considered a rubber stamp, as it is exceedingly rare for councillors to change their mind after third reading.
The bulk of donations from Mitchell executives came after third reading had been approved, in some cases days later. Not all candidates who voted for the project received donations.
The final reading of the plan wasn’t held until Oct. 1, 2018. The municipal election was held on Oct. 20, 2018.
Councillors Petrina Arnason, Eric Woodward, Kim Richter, and David Davis don’t appear to have received cash from the executives listed in the anonymous report. Arnason and Richter received mostly small dollar donations, and Davis self-financed his campaign.
Former councillor Michelle Sparrow, defeated in 2018, voted in favour of projects such as the Williams Neighbourhood Plan, but received no developer donations.
“The big questions I have are what are the ramifications for prior council decisions and future council decisions,” said Richter.
“From my perspective, the new provincial Campaign Financing Rules need to change to prevent this from continuing to happen in future elections,” Richter said.
She suggested municipal council business could also be shut down once the writ has dropped, as in federal elections.
Corporate and union donations to candidates in local elections were made illegal in 2017.
Individual donations are capped at $1,200 per year, per campaign, said Andrew Watson, media spokesperson for Elections BC – which administers local elections.
“Only contributions from eligible individuals are allowed,” he said. Eligible donors are residents of B.C. who are also either Canadian citizens or permanent residents.
Candidates can donate up to $2,400 to their own campaigns.
“You need to make donations with your own money,” said Watson. It can’t be money gifted for donation purposes, or reimbursed later.
Elections BC has started some investigations into indirect contributions since the 2018 local elections, but Watson couldn’t comment on them as they are still ongoing.
He confirmed there is no investigation into the donations in Langley.
There is one case in which a B.C. councillor lost his seat related to donations from a developer, but in that case, the donations were not disclosed. William King was removed by his fellow Nanaimo councillors in 1998 during his third term.
King received more than $4,500 from a developer called Northridge Village, failed to disclose the donations, and then voted in favour of Northridge’s projects.
But King fought back in the courts, and in 2001 the BC Court of Appeal ruled in his favour, ruling there was no evidence that King had a direct interest in the projects.
All the donations at issue in Langley Township were disclosed in the candidates’ own filings. There has been no suggestion of undisclosed donations.