There is no evidence of any link between campaign contributions to Langley Township’s mayor and several councillors, and votes on development projects, lawyers argued Thursday as a hearing that could remove a third of council from office continued in B.C. Supreme Court.
The Dec. 3 hearing was the fourth of arguments in a case pitting 10 local voters against Mayor Jack Froese, Councillors Bob Long and Blair Whitmarsh, and former councillor Angie Quaale.
The voters petitioned the court to remove Froese, Long, and Whitmarsh from office, claiming they were in a conflict of interest for taking campaign contributions from development company executives while developments by those companies were under consideration by council.
Lawyer J.W. Locke, representing the mayor and councillors, said there is simply no evidence of a link between the contributions and the way the officials voted.
“There must be a link beyond mere campaign contributions,” Locke argued. “There is nothing unlawful about giving campaign contributions, that’s well established.”
A promise, implicit or otherwise, to vote in a certain way is required, Locke argued before Justice Paul Walker.
There has to be evidence of such a deal, said Locke.
“I know it may be difficult, but some evidence from somebody who says these votes were tied to these contributions,” he said is required, not just the timing issue. “It’s inferential at best and speculative at worst.”
James Goulden, a lawyer for the Township of Langley, spent some time Thursday laying out exactly how the development process functions, and noting that the vast majority of developments put before the council pass.
He pointed to dozens of decisions, including rezonings, development permit hearings, and heritage alteration permits, and discussed how staff make recommendations to the council.
Councillors only see the rezonings and give their final votes after Township staff have worked with the developers, and final votes aren’t held until after public input. In the case of one of the votes at issue, on the Williams Neighbourhood Plan, the planning and input process lasted for three years.
“There’s no smoke, there’s no fire, there’s nothing wrong here,” said Goulden.
Goulden warned of the impacts to the Township if the councillors should be removed from office.
Not only would that remove one-third of the nine-member council, Goulden said it would call into question all 19 decisions the petitioners are challenging as involving conflicts of interest.
“Those may become a significant issue for the Township,” Goulden said. The rezoning and development decisions could be challenged as well.
Mark Underhill, the lawyer for the 10 voters who petitioned the court, wrapped up with some final arguments saying that there was no need to prove a direct deal or agreement of any kind to vote a certain way in exchange for the campaign cash.
He continued to argue that the close timing between votes and donations was enough, and referenced a number of other conflict of interest cases where councillors voted on matters that impacted their employers, business partners, or non-profits they had been members of.
However, Justice Walker questioned Underhill on that subject.
“It [the conflict of interest] arises from the fact of the relationship,” Walker said, and those links were obvious during the trial. “But in this case, we don’t have those types of relationships. You don’t have any of the mayor or the council members… involved with any of the developers.”
They weren’t employees or investors, they didn’t have family members working for the developers, Walker said.
If there was an issue, wasn’t that a matter for the B.C. Legislature to rule on, Walker asked.
Underhill countered that, if there’s no link between timing and votes, there is nothing to stop a developer from turning up at a council meeting and handing out $400 cheques to mayor and councillors immediately before a vote.
But Walker continued to question if timing was relevant.
“Where is the dividing line?” he said.
What’s the difference between a donation two years before a vote and one just days before a vote, Walker said.
The hearing Thursday finished in the early afternoon, and Walker was to hear a few final arguments on Friday morning before considering his ruling.