The city’s board of police commissioners won’t be getting its own permanent lawyers, but following advice from staff, it will now be able to seek an outside legal opinion when needed.
At its virtual meeting on Monday, the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners discussed a report on whether the city’s legal team is in a conflict of interest when it advises the board.
The report is the result of a motion from Coun. Lindell Smith, now the chair of the board, who asked last year for an outside legal opinion on the issue of a conflict for the municipal legal team. The issue, summarized by the Halifax Examiner here, is that the board is supposed to be independent, yet it gets legal advice from the same people advising the police.
On Monday, city lawyer Katherine Salsman, the author of the report, told the board there’s no legal conflict of interest because the lawyers always act on the municipality’s behalf, not on behalf of the police or any individual employee.
“It would be very rare that there would be a true divergence of interests between HRM itself and the board,” Salsman said, and she said the lawyers would have to recuse themselves if that did happen.
“However, we do recognize that it’s not only important that there be no bias, it’s also important that there be no appearance of bias, and that the board not only has to be independent, it has to appear to be independent to its public. And that means that there may be cases that although there is no true legal conflict of interest, it may appear to the public that there is a perceived conflict of interest caused by having advice being provided by the same lawyers to the board as providing that advice to HRP or to HRM.”
In those cases the board may want to get its own lawyers. Salsman said the Police Act doesn’t bar the board from getting its own legal advice, and she presented two options for the board to do so.
First, the board could stop using HRM lawyers altogether and get its own lawyers for everything, even navigating procedure during meetings. Staff are opposed to this idea.
“It’s likely to cause significant financial waste because it would be an unusual case that there would be a question arise at a meeting unexpectedly that would need to be considered,” Salsman said.
The second option, and Salsman’s preference, is for the board to “access ad hoc legal counsel where required.”
“It could do so by a motion requesting that that independent legal counsel be provided, and then depending on the request, it could be approved by the municipal solicitor, the CAO or council.”
HRM lawyer Marty Ward said the board should be able to get a second legal opinion. But there are “clear advantages” to the current model because the city’s legal staff is well-versed in the procedural rules governing committee meetings.
“We see it as a situation where, you know, the commission should have the option when the commission thinks it’s required, but we don’t think that that’s an every day occurrence,” Ward said.
“We don’t think that’s an every meeting occurrence, but so long as there’s an off-ramp there for the commission, if they need that additional option, that it’s there for them.”
Coun. Becky Kent said she felt it was the most “fiscally responsible” choice. Coun. Lisa Blackburn and Commissioner Carole McDougall agreed.
Smith asked the lawyers whether the board should have an increased budget to pay for any necessary outside legal costs. Ward said he thinks the commission should just ask chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé for the money on a case-by-case basis, and Dubé will arrange for it.
The motion — endorsing the “use of occasional ad hoc legal advice as required” — passed unanimously.
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