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Aug. 15, 2020 | Saturday
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Councillor denies conflict of interest
Coun. Erwin Wiens sits as chair at the committee of the whole meeting July 8. (Dariya Baiguzhiyeva/Niagara Now)

NOTL Coun. Erwin Wiens says he was not in a conflict of interest when he voted to support the Queenston Mile Vineyard’s application to operate as an estate winery.

Wiens, who purchased Harvest Barn and the adjacent Rancourt Winery in 2018 with partner Fabian Reis, said he received advice from his lawyer “long before” the council meeting stating that he didn’t have any conflicts of interest in regard to the application.

In an online posting Tuesday, former NOTL councillor Paolo Miele questioned whether Wiens was in a potential conflict of interest by participating in the discussions and vote on Queenston Mile.

Wiens denied Miele’s claim and refused to discuss whether he still has a financial interest in either Harvest Barn or Rancourt.

“I got specific advice in regards if I was in a conflict if I voted on that and I’m not in conflict,” Wiens told The Lake Report.

“I don’t want to discuss any personal businesses that I may or may not own because it involves other people’s businesses,” Wiens said in a phone interview. “I’m not in conflict after I received my advice.”

He said he always gets legal advice when he thinks he may be in conflict, which he said, “only happened twice.”

The other time he consulted his lawyer was in regard to an affordable housing project in Virgil. The proposal, which was presented to town council in May, came from developer Rainer Hummel, who is Wiens’ first cousin.

“I’m not going to get into my personal finances or any of that,” Wiens said in a phone interview. “As a politician, I’m not obligated to tell you any of that.”

At a meeting on Monday, July 15, Niagara-on-the-Lake councillors had a motion before them regarding Queenston Mile Vinyeard’s application to operate as an estate winery. The motion was to gather more information and have staff come back with a report at the next council meeting. 

Wiens voted against deferring the motion and said he was in support of the Queenston Mile Vineyard’s application.

Peter Woolstencroft, a University of Waterloo political science professor emeritus, said in order for there to be a conflict of interest, there must be “a financial loss or gain” for a council member.

Another governance expert, Brock University professor emeritus of political science David Siegel, said the test under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act is whether a councillor or a family member has a pecuniary interest in a matter before council.

“It would seem to me that deciding to confer or withhold some benefit on a competitor or potential competitor would qualify as a pecuniary interest. Of course, the definition of a competitor might be arguable,” he wrote in response to questions from The Lake Report.

“The wine industry could be seen as fragmented by things like price point, varietal niches, etc., so that not every winery is a direct competitor of every other winery.”

“Councillors will also sometimes suggest that they can vote on motions related to an application, such as a motion to defer or ask for a report, as long as they declare a conflict on the final motion,” Siegel said. “The legislation makes it clear that someone who has a conflict must not participate in any aspect of the debate.”

Miele said by making a Facebook post he was hoping to educate people who “aren’t listening or paying attention to politics.”

“It’s not all about personal gain. It’s about the perception,” he said in a phone interview. “The motion was defeated but you got to declare the conflict because the perception is there. It’s not just about money.”

Wiens said if anyone has concerns regarding the conflict of interest, they could contact the councillor in question or the integrity commissioner.

“That’s what a gentleman does. A gentleman doesn’t go on Facebook and make wild accusations that he doesn’t know what the situation is,” he said. “This seems more grandstanding. If he really was concerned about the situation, then he would have tried to get a resolution.”

The Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and council’s Code of Conduct spell out a member’s responsibility to declare a conflict of interest, said town clerk Peter Todd.

“The act and council’s Code of Conduct outlines that it is not the responsibility of the clerk or any town staff to determine whether a member has a conflict, but rather it is the responsibility of the member to determine if they have a conflict of interest,” Todd said in an email response to The Lake Report.

“The town’s integrity commissioner is also responsible for serving as an adviser to individual members of council in relation to the applicable Code of Conduct and any procedures, rules and policies of the municipality governing their ethical behaviour, including the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act,” Todd said.