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Cambridge committee of adjustment chair violated conflict of interest: report

Integrity commissioner found Frances Seward violated code of conduct by failing to recuse herself from a decision about a property she lived across the street from
Cambridge City Hall.

Cambridge council will decide next week whether to follow a recommendation to appoint a new chair to the city's committee of adjustment after the city's integrity commissioner found the current chair breached conflict of interest in 2022.

The breach was the chair failing to recuse herself from discussion about an application for a property she is a neighbour of.

The complaint by the owner of an Oak Street property, who appealed to the Ontario Land Tribunal after being turned down at the committee of adjustment (COA), is against committee chair Frances Seward, who lives directly across the street from the property in question.

The complainant sought to sever the property and asked the city to allow minor variances to zoning bylaws to permit the demolition of the current semi-detached home and build two new, three-storey homes.

The proposal was heard by the COA at its Dec. 14, 2022, meeting where Seward failed to recuse herself from the decision.

In his complaint to the city's integrity commissioner, Paula Boutis, of Aird & Berlis LLP, the applicant made several allegations related to Seward’s conduct as it relates to the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.

In the lead-up to the COA hearings, the complainant alleged Seward was actively engaged in the matter, discussing the proposal with local area residents and with the applicant.

Boutis said she was provided with an email in which Seward stated to members of the community, "[When the tenant is gone], [the applicant] tells me the current structure will be demolished and 2 new homes (that will fit in with the style of our neighbourhood) will be built. [emphasis added]"

The complainant alleged Seward told him he “should keep in touch with the community throughout the design process if he would like it to go smoothly.”

Seward denied making the statements and in her interview, told Boutis, "I am not that kind of person!"

"I certainly did speak with the applicant regarding the 'tenants' of the property and the number of police calls to the property; if there was a discussion about what plans the applicant had for buildings it was as a discussion as a private citizen, not as a COA member," she said.

The code of conduct for members of council appointed committees is clear that anyone who is aware of a known conflict of interest shall immediately disclose to the staff administrator and shall refrain and abide by any decision made with respect to such conflict of interest without recourse.

It also states that no member of the public shall use the influence of their role on a board or committee for any purpose other than for the exercise of their official duties.

Boutis confirmed Seward received training when she on-boarded in 2021 that "generally spoke to declaring, at the start of a hearing, conflicts of interest if members have a conflict or what might be perceived to be a conflict."

Boutis makes note that Seward "may not have received training on the concept of bias/apprehension of bias at the relevant time" but believes she did receive clear direction from the committee's secretary-treasurer that members who live within the notice area of an application ought to recuse themselves.

In her interview with Boutis, Seward was adamant that if she had been advised to recuse herself she would have. "It is why I asked the question, for his direction,” she said.

But Boutis called the secretery-treasurer, who has an undergraduate degree in planning, is a trained paralegal and a former member of the City of Toronto’s Committee of Adjustment, the "more credible witness" and said since Seward didn't take the advice, she "made a deliberate decision not to follow the guidance of the secretary-treasurer."

Boutis is recommending council denounce Seward's actions in "deliberately breaching the Code of Conduct" and that her appointment to the Committee of Adjustment be "revoked forthwith."

Seward was first appointed to the COA in 2021 and was reappointed following the most recent municipal election in 2022. She was re-elected by the COA to serve as its chair following her reappointment by council in early 2023.

Contacted by CambridgeToday, Seward, who works as a realtor, said she wouldn't comment on the integrity commissioner's report, adding she would await direction from council on her fate.

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Doug Coxson

About the Author: Doug Coxson

Doug has been a reporter and editor for more than 25 years, working mainly in Waterloo region and Guelph.
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