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Tri-City mayor resigns alleging ‘conflict of interest’ blocked effort to stem wildfire risk

Neil Belenkie resigned as mayor of the Tri-City village of Belcarra today, alleging that two councillors blocked efforts to sell off small lots of public land to fund water infrastructure to combat wildfires.

The mayor of Belcarra has resigned in protest, alleging that two councillors moved to block a plan to sell off village land in direct conflict of interest with their personal assets. 

Neil Belenkie resigned as mayor Tuesday, Oct. 13, in a last-ditch move he said was to protest Coun. Carolina Clark and Coun. Bruce Drake failing to recuse themselves from a Sept. 28 vote that Belenkie said would have advanced the potential sale of small village-owned lots in an effort to raise funds for a water system to fight wildfires.

On Sept. 28, the two councillors voted to block the change in zoning laws that would have allowed for the creation of property titles on lots less than half an acre, something currently prohibited in Belcarra, but a category that makes up many of the road end lots. 

“We were elected to improve the water systems,” Belenkie told the Tri-City News. “If Belcarra can’t stop a fire going through the trees — because there’s no tree break — it can spread through the treetops, through Port Moody and into Coquitlam.”

“If Belcarra doesn’t get its water improved, I truly believe this threatens lives.”

Belcarra Mayor Neil Belenkie was serving with the Sasamat Volunteer Fire Department when he rememb
Belcarra Mayor Neil Belenkie was serving with the Sasamat Volunteer Fire Department when he remembers the village ran out of water while crews battled a house fire. He recently told the Tri-City News he fears a house fire in his community could quickly spread into the forest and start a wildfire. - File photo

Belenkie said both councillors had recused themselves in the past when the issue came before council. As evidence of the conflict of interest, he pointed to a letter submitted by Clark’s husband, Peter Clark, to council in October 2019, which states that the sale of a village-owned waterfront lot would “destroy the view” from their home and substantially reduce its value.

"This home like many people our age is our entire life savings," wrote the councillor's husband, "it is all we have and potentially inflicting this type of a financial loss should be avoided at all costs." 

Both Clark and Drake denied to the Tri-City News that they were in a conflict of interest. 

“I do not agree that I have breached the conflict of interest rules. And I’m very disappointed that the mayor would publicly make such allegations about me,” said Coun. Clark, noting she has consulted a lawyer throughout the process.

“I really don’t believe I was in conflict or I wouldn’t have voted.” 

Regarding the letter, Clark later wrote the Tri-City News: “My husband wrote the letter. I did not have any involvement with it. Furthermore, I am on the record as having declared a conflict of interest regarding the waterfront lot across the street from my property.”

Drake said any potential sale of the village-owned property near his house would have no impact on his view as it is two doors down. 

“It’s on the other side of a neighbour’s property,” he said. “The reality is my property wouldn’t be impacted.”

According to Drake, his opposition to changing the laws around the sale of land less than a half-acre in size — a category which encompasses many of the road end lots — stems from a public hearing in which “there was the largest negative response I’ve seen in years.”

Drake said some community members expressed frustration that the lots might be developed out of the “green character of the community,” that certain trails would become inaccessible, and that any development would encroach upon some residents’ driveways and property. 

But the now-former mayor said an elected revenue-generating committee had recommended the sale of the road ends and that by blocking the process that would have made those sales possible, the two councillors have put the entire region at risk due to wildfire, what Belenkie has called a "ticking time bomb" for the entire Tri-Cities.

“The village is broke,” he said, referring to a 2019 audited financial statement, which indicates the village holds a net debt of over $2.1 million, despite over . “That was the number-one thing I was elected to do. I failed.”

In what Belenkie described as both an “unbelievably selfish” turn of events and a “failure in process,” he is calling on the province to conduct an investigation into any potential breaches of conflict of interest rules.

The remaining members of Belcarra council are now looking to hold a byelection to elect a new mayor, the second election now slated for the village after former Coun. Rob Begg resigned shortly after the last council meeting, citing “council disfunction.” 

In the meantime, Belcarra Coun. Liisa Wilder has stepped into the role, in line with her duties as acting mayor. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story quoted Mr. Belenkie as saying "The village is broke." While accurately quoted, we have added context around the financial situation of the village of Belcarra as last reported in a 2019 independent audit.