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Squamish mayor addresses conflict of interest allegations during annual gathering

During her address to the local business community, Elliott took aim at attack ads posted by a Facebook account associated with the proposed Cheema Lands project.

Mayor Karen Elliott had some strong words at her annual address to the business community for a developer who has been posting attack ads against her on social media.

"I suppose this developer feels that lies and misstatements will help their cause and we'll have a discussion today about how and whether to respond," Elliott said.

Due to the pandemic, the annual Squamish Chamber of Commerce Mayor's Luncheon was transformed into a video conference call on Feb. 18 attended by about 100.

The Facebook ads appear on an account associated with the proposed Cheema Lands project.

The first advertisement was posted on Feb. 4, and the latest one went up on Feb. 16.

The ads allege Elliott was in conflict of interest when she voted on certain decisions at council.

Elliott previously ran a consulting business — which she suspended in 2020 — and the accusations centre around her failing to recuse herself when decisions regarding her former clients were brought before council.

Developer Bob Cheema has clashed with municipal council over the years, as he has repeatedly tried to get permission to develop his lands, but consecutive councils have turned him down, citing Official Community Plan regulations.

When asked for comment on the mayor's remarks at her annual meeting, Cheema directed The Chief to contact Aran Cheema, who gave a written statement on behalf of the Cheema family.

In the statement, the Cheemas expressed concern about the mayor's conduct and alleged she had engaged in at least one conflict of interest.

In particular, the Cheemas' statement accused Elliott of failing to recuse herself when she voted on the Helping Hands' Under One Roof social housing project when it was undergoing a rezoning vote on July 4, 2017. She voted in favour of giving first and second reading to the project on that date.

Elliott had previously done work for Helping Hands as a consultant.

The vote in question was during the previous council term, when Elliott was serving as a councillor, not mayor.

Elliott addressed the matter in a subsequent meeting.

The official minutes of the public hearing held on July 18, 2017 state: "Elliott advised that she had previously declared a conflict, but that she is no longer in conflict on this matter as she no longer does consulting work for the non-profit organization."

The Cheemas' statement to The Chief disagrees with the mayor's response to the conflict of interest allegations in the ads, which she characterized as "lies" and "misstatements."

Cheemas' statement characterized the mayor's comments as "deeply troubling."

"We are going to continue speaking to citizens and producing content," the statement read.

During her talk, Elliott said these attack ads were unlike any she's seen before, despite her participation in rezoning hearings for other contentious projects.

"I think some people expect that this is part of what political leaders should expect, and I disagree with that fundamentally," she said.

"I also think that often female leaders are targeted with this kind of political attack as to try and intimidate. And I think it's a scourge on our public realm and the public discourse. But, you know, we'll look at a way to counteract the misinformation, and I suppose it's up to this developer whether they want to choose to go in this direction on an ongoing basis.

"I've got bigger, more important issues as a mayor and as this council that we need to focus on, so I'm not going to be distracted by this kind of junk."

After the chamber video conference, when The Chief asked the District whether the mayor would pursue legal action over the ads, the District provided a written statement that summarized much of what the mayor had said during the business gathering.

A municipal spokesperson added that the mayor planned no further public comment.


***CORRECTION, Feb. 23, 4:45 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly said the Cheemas’ statement was referring to Helping Hands’ Under One Roof public hearing on July 18, 2017. 

In fact, the Cheemas were referring to the case where Elliott gave first and second reading on the Under One Roof project on July 4, 2017.