Judge promises quick decision on board’s application to break logjam

Judge promises quick decision on boards application to break logjam

The London District Catholic school board will learn next week if it will be given an exemption from Ontario’s conflict of interest law that will lift the board out of a state of financial paralysis.

The London District Catholic school board will learn next week if it will be given an exemption from Ontario’s conflict of interest law that will lift the board out of a state of financial paralysis.

Following the municipal election last fall, seven of the board’s eight trustees have declared conflicts on votes for the board’s budget and other financial matters because they have a family member who works for the board.

Because the board can’t achieve a quorum of two trustees, it has been unable to move forward with day-to-day operations including “critical governance decisions,” the board said in an application filed February in a London Superior Court.

At a hearing Friday, Justice Spencer Nicholson said he would issue a decision next week.

“You ought not to lose any sleep that you’re not going to have a functioning board shortly,” he said. “It can’t be the intention of this act to paralyze boards like this.”

Nicholson said earlier in the hearing he didn’t want to “hamstring” trustees but there has to be a balance.

“I want them to have the ability to act without fear of reprisal,” he said. “But I don’t want them to have a carte blanche over every decision they make.”

Paula Lombardi, the board’s counsel, argued in the application the board needed an urgent exemption from Ontario’s conflict of interest law because its operations have been “paralyzed.”

The board said in its application it is in a “governance crisis” and unable to move forward on its $312-million budget and labor agreements with teachers and other staff.

Trustees learned about their conflicts at a presentation given to the board, Lombardi said at the hearing.

“Immediately upon hearing that presentation at the next board meeting these trustees declared a conflict of interest,” she said. “It’s clearly from that action alone they are not motivated by a pecuniary interest. The motivation is statutory compliance (with the act).”

The Municipal Conflict of Interest Act came into effect in 1983 and ensures public officials do not take advantage of their positions for personal gain.

A school board must have a minimum of two board members to be able to make decisions.

The seven trustees who have declared conflicts are Gabe Pizzuti, his son Matt Pizzuti, Sandra Cruz, Bill Hall, Mary Holmes, John Jevnikar and Josh Lamb.

Cruz, Hall, Holmes and Jevnikar have children who work full time or occasionally for the board and Lamb has a sister. All are members of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association except for Hall’s daughter who is a member of CUPE.

The elder Pizzuti has a son, the younger Pizzuti’s brother, who works as a teacher for the board and their wife and mother works as an occasional teacher.

“What is interesting about this is they all have family members who are teachers for a good reason,” Nicholson said. “They are interested in education. It’s almost counterintuitive to me that they have no connection to teachers to be on boards.”

Board chairperson Linda Steele is the only trustee who does not have a conflict of interest.

“Given the number of trustees with family members employed in the board, we are taking careful and proactive steps to ensure we are compliant with our legislative and governance responsibilities,” she said in a statement earlier this week. “Receiving clarity from the court will enable the board of trustees to continue its work with confidence and transparency.”

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