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posted March 01, 2010

"Conflict of interest" as that phrase is used by Parks, Forestry and Recreation management:

(by Jutta Mason)

Background: Although both the general manager and the recreation director have told reporters in February that the current Ward 18 offerings or snack bars, skate rentals, etc. are in no danger of elimination, management pronouncements over the past year suggest otherwise. Last rink season I was told, and PT staff were also told, that they must find a way to stop handling cash outside of city policies (i.e. at the zamboni cafe, skate rental, and Friday Night Supper). To drive the point home, the recreation manager sent everyone the auditor's fraud policy. PT staff made considerable efforts to adapt the existing, workable Dufferin Rink cash handling system to that of the city. The city's policy is designed for registration and events payments, but it doesn't work well for food or skate lending at all. The Dufferin staff sent in a detailed report on possible workarounds, but that report seems to have been shelved without comment.

Attempts to continue the previous years' involvement at Christie Pits were stopped by Recreation supervisor Kim Brown, saying that recreation staff were not to handle cash, for food or skate lending.

Then at a meeting in September 2009, Malcolm Bromley, the Recreation director, spent some considerable time explaining conflict of interest to part-time Dufferin Rink staff Sarah Cormier. He warned her that her contributions to the a rink bulletin, recommending improvements for Giovanni Caboto Rink, put her in real danger of being fingered for conflict of interest by the city auditor. He emphasized that he was quoting from a conversation he had with general manager Brenda Patterson. As a follow-up to the meeting, Parks director Andy Koropeski sent me the city's Conflict of Interest Policy: "please see attached 'Conflict of Interest' policy which all members of the Toronto public Service must govern themselves."

And finally, Recreation manager Kelvin Seow told me in late February that he felt the staff were acting in conflict of interest, and that he intended to call them together to discuss this.

Therefore I sent Kelvin the attached 2005 job description,and questions asking him to highlight those tasks that were against policy and therefore prohibited. The senior part-time staff added a bit more to the list, to reflect additional responsibilities since 2005.

The first meeting with Kelvin Seow, February 24, 2010:

To his credit, Recreation manager Kelvin Seow said at the start of the meeting that he didn't mind people disagreeing with him. There followed a very animated conversation about what actions of the Dufferin part time staff might put them in a situation of conflict of interest.

Kelvin said that the first problem about Dufferin Grove activities is that staff might be doing work not in their CUPE Local 79 collective agreement. Staff pointed out that part of their job description is "other duties as assigned." Kelvin said that this sentence probably protects Dufferin Grove activities at the moment, but it may disappear when the process of job harmonization is complete.

Harmonized job descriptions are being hammered out between the union and management. I asked "what about the third element, the public, do they have any input?" Kelvin said no, but "management is the agent on behalf of the public. We advocate on behalf of the public." It did seem very likely that in the new harmonized job descriptions, there may be specific prohibitions against part-time staff preparing food for the zamboni cafe, or Friday Night Supper, or skate lending, or pizza days. Nobody knows for sure (including Kelvin), since the negotiations for job harmonization are being carried on privately.

In further attempts to define what activities put staff in conflict of interest, Kelvin was asked whether researching and writing the rink report was on the list. Kelvin said that using knowledge staff have acquired as a city employee was not permitted under the policy. He cited this line:

Employees may not engage in any outside work or business activity...which use their knowledge of confidential plans, projects or information about holdings of the corporation.

Kelvin also said "if you're critical of the city you can't go to the public." He emphasized that this didn't mean that part-time staff couldn't voice their criticisms within the department, i.e. to their immediate supervisor. But he seemed to be saying that the rink report, containing many suggestions for change or improvement, was a conflict of interest for staff who helped to put the report together (since the report was not commissioned by their supervisor). If staff suggest in a public document that benches or skating schedules are lacking, that's a criticism and therefore a conflict.

The conversation turned to the question of whether a zamboni cafe or a skate lending program were inherently a conflict of interest because part-time staff were not directed to establish those programs in the first place. However, by the time this was raised, Kelvin had run out of time and he had to go. A follow-up meeting time was set for March 9, this time setting aside 2 hours.

A public conversation about conflict of interest:

The next conversation with part-time staff and Kelvin will hopefully clarify the list of what activities are considered to be a conflict of interest by management. Then it will be time to have a public discussion about what these constraints may mean for park users and the neighbourhood.

Mark Federman from O.I.S.E. sent this analysis:

The Case of Dufferin Grove Park.

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