The Telegram (St. John's)
Witless Bay embroiled in conflict: minister
Eddie Joyce says town councillors need to do the job they were elected to do
Municipal Affairs and Environment Minister Eddie Joyce has a simple suggestion for the four remaining members of the town council of Witless Bay — get your act together and deal with town business.
Joyce was responding Friday to media stories and complaints to his department about issues that are plaguing the beleaguered town council on the southern shore.
The council is down to four members who haven’t been able to carry on town business because some of them fail to show up for meetings.
“Back when the town plan was put in place, when I took over the department in 2015, there’s been conflict in Witless Bay over the town plan,” Joyce said. “Many conflict of interest allegations, and (conflict) over the development of Ragged Beach. And I’ve received more letters and more complaints about Witless Bay …. so the conflict in Witless Bay is nothing new. I’ve met with the council on several occasions and it’s about time for the council to get together and to do what the people elected you to do and that is make decisions.”
The last public meeting of the council where business was dealt with was in May.
Mayor Maureen Murphy, who after being elected in a byelection in October 2016 found herself in the mayor’s chair after the resignation of the then-mayor and deputy mayor this spring, said she has tried a number of times to get the town business moving.
Being relatively new to municipal politics, she said, she’s been placed in a difficult position and has been getting a lot of calls from disgruntled residents whose applications for permits and other items are left in limbo this summer.
Witless Bay resident Lorna Yard, meanwhile, has written Joyce and his department demanding action be taken in the town. Yard had initiated an action in Newfoundland Supreme Court that challenged the residency claim of former deputy mayor Fraser Paul who had also won a seat on the town council in the October byelection — and who became deputy mayor at the same time Murphy was bumped up to mayor.
Yard won the case in court with the judge finding that Paul had faked his residency during the required 30-day period prior to the nomination date for the by-election. Paul resigned from council earlier this month as a result of the court decision.
Yard is concerned that the department has not taken any action since the court decision. It’s an issue, she said, that she — as a private citizen — should not have had to take to court since there were a number of complaints lodged prior to the by-election about Paul’s residency that the department failed to thoroughly investigate.
She said a private citizen shouldn’t have to take court action to protect the integrity of the election process, particularly after the department was made aware of the situation.
Joyce said that the matter — including the impact of the judge’s decision and determining whether any penalties should be imposed — has now been referred to the Department of Justice and Public Safety which is reviewing the case.
As for determining whether Paul was a resident of the town at the time, he said, that was ultimately up to the returning officer to decide.
Geraldine Caul, the town’s returning officer for the October byelection, however, stated in court she did have concerns about the Paul’s residency claims after complaints were received from members of the community.
She even postponed the byelection from Oct. 18 to Oct. 25 in order to investigate the issue and contacted the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment for direction.
In a post on the town’s website last fall, Caul explained:
“Following a review from the Department of Municipal Affairs, and in consultation with the town’s lawyer, I have now been directed to proceed with the byelection.” Yard has called for a complete review and revamp of municipal legislation in the province. Yard says the case is a “shocking demonstration” of disrespect of the democratic process and that the department failed in the case and now needs to tighten up the legislation.
Joyce said that will be underway soon in conjunction with Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador.
“We will be doing a complete review of the whole Municipalities Act. We are in the process of hiring someone really soon to start that process,” he said. “And (the residency issue) will be one issue that will be brought up and discussed … how can we ensure that residency.
“This is unique, of course, so we are dealing with a unique situation.”
Meanwhile, there are frustrated residents and businesses in Witless Bay that have not been able to proceed with projects because their applications remain on the town council table gathering dust.
Joyce notes that, according to numbers from Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador, 25 per cent of the town councils in the province are operating without a full slate of councillors. And, he said, they are doing well in moving business along.
With Witless Bay, he said, even though there is a sufficient number of councillors to make quorum, ongoing conflicts seem to be interfering.
The minister noted he’s had a number of meetings with the Witless Bay council in recent years over the town plan and a proposed Ragged Beach development. But, he said, it’s up to elected members of the town council to make decisions.
“Under the Municipalities Act, if there is a quorum the department cannot step in,” Joyce said. “So you hear that the minister has to step in … But the minister can’t if there is a quorum.
“If someone resigns tomorrow, we can step in to make an appointment for a quorum. If a person doesn’t show up for three consecutive months they are automatically off council and we can then appoint somebody.”
Meanwhile, while waiting for the Department of Justice and Public Safety to complete its review, and until something changes on the town council, Joyce said the department is willing to help mediate conflicts in order to get town business moving prior to the upcoming September elections.
“The department would be willing to sit down with the four of them and help to work it out,” Joyce said. “It’s a sad situation in the town. They got to get together for the town because they are elected to represent the town. The council can write and say ‘we need someone to come down and help us work as a functioning council’ and we would do that ASAP. We will do whatever we can to mediate this.”