After some two hours of wrangling Tuesday night, Witless Bay council appears to be back to square one when it comes to resolving allegations of conflict of interest involving two councillors.
Despite prolonged debate, and the unusual scene of councillors at the centre of the alleged conflicts actually participating in the debates about how to handle the conflicts, all the chamber could do in the end was vote to ask for a meeting with an official in the Department of Municipal Affairs for advice.
The failure of council to resolve the matters means the allegations have pushed into the eight straight month of controversy with the town failing to follow three written orders from the Minister of Municipal Affairs to resolve the issue.
Mayor Sébastien Després said council did move to resolve the matters in the past month, but the more he talked about the issues the clearer it became that the two councillors at the centre of the allegations, husband and wife team Ralph Carey and Dena Wiseman, actually participated in the private meetings, helped frame how the matters would be resolved and sat in on the votes which council held, in camera, to try resolving the matters. Their participation in those debates and presence at the votes raises questions as to whether they are now in a further conflict of interest.
Tuesday’s meeting, meanwhile, began with all seven councillors voting to adopt the minutes of the last public meeting as well as the two private meetings. Council also tabled the report from the Minister of Municipal Affairs, which advised the town that the province cannot register the Town Plan because of irregularities in the way council handled the document. In that report, Minister Keith Hutchings also advised council, for at least the third time, to resolve the conflict of interest allegations involving Carey and Wiseman, and advised that that should happen before council tries to rectify the situation with the Town Plan.
It soon became obvious that no resolution on the two sets of conflict of interest allegations was in sight. One allegation concerns Carey and Wiseman’s participation in a discussion about snow clearing on Pond Path, a private lane where they own property that is about to be rezoned to allow residential development under the proposed Town Plan. The second allegation pertains to their participation in the vote on the Town Plan.
Landowners in Witless Bay, who are detrimentally affected by changes in the Town Plan, have charged the pair had a monetary interest in the new document, which rezones their land for development. Councillor Kevin Smart was also accused of being in a conflict of interest because he too owns land that is being rezoned and can be developed once the new Town Plan takes effect.
“In terms of the progress council has made to deal with this first allegation… we discussed this at a privileged meeting where a motion was made that councillor Kevin Smart was not in a conflict of interest, and that motion passed,” said Deprés. “And subsequently another motion was made that councillors Wiseman and Carey were not in a conflict of interest and that motion passed.”
After further discussion, however, it became clear that during that privileged meeting, councillors Carey and Wiseman participated in the discussion on how to craft the votes on the conflict of interest allegations and actually got to vote on the allegation involving Smart, while Smart was given the opportunity to vote on the allegations involving Carey and Wiseman.
Deprés said the town subsequently met with a lawyer and obtained an opinion that none of the three councillors were in a conflict of interest. But not all the councillors felt the same way as Deprés. One of them, apparently, made a motion that council proceed with the Friendly Hearing ordered by Municipal Affairs so that Carey, Wiseman and Smart could defend themselves against the allegation before the remaining councillors voted on whether to vacate their seats or not. However Deprés said that motion was out of order.
“So that’s where we stand today,” the mayor reported.
Councillor Wiseman then made a motion that council disclose the lawyer’s opinion to the public. Councillor Carey seconded it, noting a couple of times that he himself did not have a copy of the five page opinion. After some discussion, in which councillor Albert Murphy pointed out that he had only received the lawyer’s opinion 10 minutes before the start of Tuesday’s council meeting, Deprés suggested Wiseman withdraw the motion.
Council then got into an argument over whether councillor Murphy could participate in the vote on the conflict of interest allegations concerning the Town Plan, because he has a brother-in-law whose land is affected by the document. It was Murphy himself who asked for a ruling on the matter, indicating he wanted to make sure he didn’t break conflict of interest guidelines. Wiseman argued Murphy was in a conflict of interest and should not participate in the vote and indicated she was opposed to leaving the council chamber for the vote on the allegation.
Deprés supported Wiseman’s contention that Murphy was in a conflict of interest and said he should not vote on the matter.
Councillor Réne Estrada countered the mayor was being overly technical.
Councillor Ken Brinston then moved that council refer the matter to Municipal Affairs for clarification. That motion carried unanimously with all seven councillors voting.
Debate on the second allegation, involving the discussion about snow clearing on Pond Path, turned out to be equally complicated.
Deprés said with regards to that allegation, a Friendly Hearing was held on April 21 in which Carey and Wiseman were given a chance to explain themselves. The mayor said a lawyer for Carey and Wiseman convinced him that council would not be able to defend itself if council vacated their seats and they took the matter to court.
Deprés, who was the person who initially raised the accusation of conflict of interest against the pair following a meeting on September 16 last year, said he has since come to realize that he was in error and so there is no conflict, he insisted. The mayor said the discussion about Pond Path didn’t occur in an official public or privileged council meeting, so it didn’t constitute a conflict of interest.
Councillor Murphy said the mayor’s statements contradict his earlier statements made in correspondence to the Department of Municipal Affairs.
After prolonged argument, in which Wiseman and Carey participated, Mayor Deprés called for a motion on whether the husband and wife pair was in conflict when it came to the matter of snowclearing on Pond Path. Murphy moved a motion to that effect, but it didn’t draw a seconder. That meant the motion failed.
Deprés then gave up his seat as chairman so that he could make a motion that Carey and Wiseman were not in a conflict of interest.
“I’m confused,” said councillor Smart. “Did we not some time ago make a notion that Ralph and Dena were not in a conflict of interest?”
Deprés replied that back in November or December council did decide, after hearing from the pair’s lawyer, that the two councillors were not in a conflict. This was while two seats on council were vacant and the town was under orders from Municipal Affairs to hold a by-election to fill the vacancies so that it could resolve the conflict of interest issues.
However, the information about the lawyer was never communicated to the public and there is no evidence that council made the Department of Municipal Affairs aware of it either.
Deprés insisted “it is so cut and dry” that Wiseman and Carey are not in a conflict of interest.
Councillors Murphy, Brinston and Estrada looked skeptical.
At this point Town Clear Geraldine Caul intervened. She argued it was clear that it was going to take more time for council to resolve the issue, so she suggested the item be moved to the end of the meeting so that could could get some regular town business done.
Murphy then moved to defer the matter pending a further meeting with Municipal Affairs.
“I second that,” Said Smart.
When Carey raised his hand to vote on the motion, Wiseman cautioned, “Don’t put your hand up, Ralph. For God’s sake don’t put your hand up.”
Council then voted to pass the motion with Carey and Wiseman abstaining. When it was pointed out to council that under the Municipalities Act an abstention is recorded as a no vote, signifying Wiseman and Carey had participated in the vote regarding the conflict of interest allegation against them, Carey and Wiseman left the chamber and Deprés called the vote again. However, they returned for the next agenda item, which was a discussion on the correspondence from Municipal Affairs about the conflict of interest allegations.