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September 01, 2021

Dear Dilemma - Conflict of Interest

Dear Dilemma - Conflict of Interest
Dear Dilemma,

I hear my colleagues talking about “conflicts of interest” as if they are things that only come up occasionally. But I see them popping up all the time, on every single file! Am I missing something?

Conflicted about Conflict

Dear Conflicted,

You are not conflicted, but your question does allow me to clarify a common misconception.

It is true that on any planning matter there will be lots of conflict: developers vs. neighbours, activists vs. politicians, private-side planners vs. municipal planners, architects and engineers vs. building code officers, and of course lawyers vs. each other (and everybody else). These are unavoidable, predictable, publicly visible conflicts – conflicts BETWEEN legitimate interests. For instance, the developer’s interest in maximizing profit on the parcel of land, vs. the neighbours’ interest in minimizing disruption to their lives. Resolving (or at least compromising) all of these conflicts should lead to the best possible outcome in the public interest.

There is a big difference with a conflict OF interest. Imagine a planner who is allowed to give a professional opinion or recommendation on a development proposal… where the planner is going to share in the profits of whatever development is ultimately approved. The planner, as a professional, has an interest (indeed an obligation under the Code) to maximize the public interest; but the planner, as a citizen with a bank account, also has an interest in maximizing what is built and how profitable it is, since he is going to share in those profits.

So in this situation, the planner is in a conflict of interest. And unlike the other more obvious conflicts we mentioned, this one could have been easily avoided, and may be unknown to the public (or to the committee of adjustments or other decision-makers), if no one knows about the planner’s profit-sharing arrangement. If or when this conflict becomes known to the public, they will wonder – did the planner sacrifice the obligation to maximize the public good, to the temptation to maximize their own benefit?

Even a planner who sincerely tries to put the public interest above personal profit will never know for sure whether they succeeded, or whether their professional advice was subconsciously nudged towards the more profitable recommendation because of their own financial interest. And suspicious members of the public who opposed that outcome will probably never believe that the planner succeeded in being fair.

This sort of uncertainty and scepticism could undermine the public’s trust in the land planning system. More within the jurisdiction and concern of OPPI, it would also undermine and corrode the public’s trust in the objectivity and trustworthiness of planners and their independent professional opinions.

That is why a true “conflict of interest” (as opposed to the many run-of-the-mill conflicts or disagreements) must be avoided at all costs. Members must err on the side of caution in avoiding these situations, because even if the conflict of interest is “only” apparent or potential, it is so dangerous to the important work that the planner and the profession does.

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