A special meeting of Witless Bay council on May 26 that was called to resolve lingering allegations of conflict of interest involving two councillors did anything but that, with the session devolving into further confusion and acrimony.
Mayor Sébastien Després began the session by insisting council had earlier this year decided in a private meeting that husband and wife councillors Ralph Carey and Dena Wiseman were not in a conflict of interest when they voted on the new Town Plan. Hence the reason for the special meeting – to ratify that decision publicly.
The mayor did not get into the background on the issue, which is that the Town Plan was a leftover piece of business from the previous council. When the new council took office in the fall of 2013, one of the first things they did, under direction from Després and Wiseman, was to take back the document from the provincial government and, over the course of several months, make changes that hurt a number of private land landowners throughout the town, including some developers. With the tinkering complete, council, including Wiseman and Carey, voted to approve the plan and resubmitted it to the province for its approval.
The Department of Municipal Affairs has since informed council that it cannot approve the plan because of “deficiencies” in the way it was handled by the new council and because of “procedural differences (that) may be contrary to the principles of good governance.”
The province’s objections, however, are separate from the conflict of interest allegation levelled by landowners and developers whose properties were zoned in ways that either stopped them from using their land, or curtailed how they could use it. They have accused Wiseman and Carey of being in a conflict of interest because the new Town Plan rezones their own land to allow for a housing development off Pond Path.
Després said that at the private meeting held to consider those charges, council decided there was no breach. “The matter is now closed and I suggest we move on to the next order of business,” he said.
Councillor Albert Murphy, who was elected in late February and took office in March, disagreed. “It is not a dead issue,” he said, arguing council can still order a “Friendly Hearing’ on the matter, which would give Wiseman and Carey the opportunity to respond to the conflict of interest allegations.
Després then accused Murphy, who was not on council when it voted to adopt the Town Plan, of being in a conflict of interest on the document.
The move startled everyone in the chamber, including Deputy Mayor Wiseman, who didn’t understand why the Mayor was going after Murphy when the Town Plan wasn’t even the agenda item being discussed at that moment.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” said Després, who went on to read a lengthy motion against Murphy, which he had obviously prepared and printed ahead of the meeting. It accused Murphy of being in a conflict of interest because he has a “close relative,” namely a brother-in-law, whose rezoning request under the Town Plan was vetoed by council.
“Can I get a seconder on that motion?” Després said.
After some hesitation, Wiseman seconded it. But she pointed out the matter was not on council’s agenda and suggested it should be discussed in a private meeting.
“This is a textbook case of conflict of interest,” Després insisted.
The mayor then gave Murphy the choice of either leaving the room to let council vote on the motion, or to defend himself. Murphy declared he was not in a conflict of interest.
“Councillor Murphy, I invite you to leave the room because you cannot participate in this vote,” the mayor directed. That drew jeers and derisive laughter from the spectators in the chamber.
“I’m not sure what we’re doing this for at this point,” Wiseman admitted, after Murphy left.
Councillor Kevin Smart also expressed confusion as to how Murphy was in conflict.
Després repeated it was a “textbook case” of conflict of interest.
When put to the vote, Després, Wiseman, Carey and Smart voted unanimously for the motion.
However, with councillors René Estrada and Ken Brinston absent from the night’s meeting, and Carey and Wiseman unable to vote on the original matter on the agenda, which was to publicly ratify the decision made in private to dismiss the conflict of interest charges against them, council could proceed no further on that matter.
Nor could it vote on a second set of conflict of interest charges against Carey and Wiseman - alleging they had participated in a discussion about snow clearing on Pond Path, a private lane leading to their property that is being rezoned under the Town Plan. That allegation was originally made by the mayor himself last September when he tried to expel Carey and Wiseman from council.
With an obvious stalemate on his hands, Després called a five minute recess and ordered Assistant Town Clerk Barb Harrigan to leave the chamber and e-mail Estrada and Brinston to inform them that council will hold another special meeting on Thursday, May 28 to conduct a vote on the Pond Path allegation. This was necessary because under its own bylaw, council has to give 48 hours public notice of a meeting.
When the session resumed, council went on to discuss a list of other agenda items. But after the meeting, during the public question and answer session, Carey and Wiseman were asked if they had ever discussed snow clearing on Pond Path with their fellow councillors.
“That’s being addressed by our lawyer,” said Carey, adding he and Wiseman brought a lawyer to the ‘Friendly Hearing’ that was held on the matter. “We gave our defense at that time. So it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to speak about it now.”
Wiseman responded similarly. “I’m not answering any of those questions,” said Wiseman. “There was a hearing on that, it’s done, it’s up to council to decide.”
Wiseman was then asked if she and Carey plan to bill the Town for the cost of the legal representation they received. “I’m not answering any questions on any of that,” Wiseman said. “I’m not answering any questions on it.”