A private sector-bound manager catches the city off guard

by Wanda Schmöckel

city-hallWhen news broke Oct. 3 that Jason Carlston, the City of Regina’s director of community planning and development, was resigning to take a job as vice president of land development for Dream Developments (formerly Dundee), it may have come as a shock. But it couldn’t have been much of a surprise.

For those in Regina who follow city hall, the relationship between the City of Regina and local developers has been well documented. And it’s certainly understandable there would be a relationship between developers and a growing city: developers increase tax revenues on property, and in a city like Regina, which is playing a frantic game of catch up with the costs of crumbling infrastructure and an influx of people moving here in recent years, it makes sense that there’d be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing going on.

But when the person charged with the planning and development of the city jumps ship to take an executive position with the developer responsible for two of the most prominent and talked about recent developments in Regina— namely Harbour Landing and the proposed  Coopertown — it raises questions, particularly around conflicts of interest.

In the wake of this announcement, the City of Regina issued a statement that, while the city is finalizing plans with Dream regarding how their future dealings with the City will be handled, Jason Carlston will not be involved or interact with any City staff on behalf of that company.

“There’d be certain files [Carlston] would have certain information on — and his employment contract with the City is that he has a fiduciary duty that would carry out past his employment with the city,” says Brent Sjoberg, deputy city manager. “He’d still be required to keep any of that information confidential — not use it to benefit somebody else. And Jason is an upstanding guy, very professional, and operates with a high degree of integrity, so there are really no concerns.

“But he does have that obligation. We’re just putting some protocols in place over the course of the next year that will guide any of those interactions.”

At present, however, the City of Regina has no policy regarding conflicts of interest per se. Conflict of interest is broadly provided for in the City of Regina’s Code of Conduct*. That document states that the onus is on the employee who finds themselves in a potential conflict of interest to disclose said conflict to their direct superior (in this case, Brent Sjoberg).

But there isn’t anything in Regina’s Code of Conduct that talks specifically about how a potential conflict of interest should be dealt with from that point forward. Instead, the city seems to be treating this as a one-off case.

“In [Carlston’s] case it’s a fairly unique set of circumstances,” Sjoberg says. “I can’t think of too many others, in the time that I’ve been here, that anything similar would have come up, so it hasn’t been a significant issue for us. We do have a code of conduct and things like that in place and certainly expectations of employees that are communicated around professionalism.”

Other cities, however, do have go-to conflict of interest policies to guide them through situations such as this. The ever-expanding city of Calgary, for example, requires an exit interview with the direct superior of the potentially conflicted employee in which it is stressed that any departing employee should not, in the future, work on files about which they possess any confidential information acquired while in the employ of the city.

If they do, both they and their new employer could face legal action.

“It’s a real challenge, ethically, to do these things after the fact,” says Greg Argue, who teaches strategic planning and local government at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

“This is an important question and these questions should be covered by policies so that it appears that you’re doing justice for everybody, including employees,” says Argue. “Even for an outgoing mayor. For example, when [a] mayor leaves, how long [is he required] to not talk to city hall to try and influence things? This is not just an administrative issue. This is for the politicians as well. Should you have a conflict of interest policy? Yes. Do you apply it after somebody’s left, though? I’m not convinced.”

Sjoberg says that Carlston informed him of his decision to leave the City on September 30th and vacated his position on Oct. 2. A representative of Dream said that the company would not comment on Carlston’s new appointment, so it’s not known when Carlston will start his new job, or if he has started already.

In any case, as far as the city goes, Sjoberg says it’s unlikely any new policy will come out of this development.

“What I anticipate is an agreement with Dream specifically to deal with this circumstance,” he says. “It’s relatively unique, and so we’re looking at working with Dream to put that into place to address anything with this particular situation.”

*Unlike the cities of Calgary, Saskatoon, and Moose Jaw, at press time, the City of Regina’s Code of Conduct is not currently available on the city’s website. You have to ask for it. Should you read a copy, though, it does state that if you’d like to make a complaint about a suspected breach of the Code of Conduct, you may file one with the City Clerk, the appropriate Department Head, or the City Manager.