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Council discusses future of legal policy

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Council went back and forth in discussion of council’s legal policy during the standing committee meeting on May 26.

Coun. Dewly Nelson immediately abstained from the discussion, due to the possibility that he would receive reimbursement of legal fees as a result of the legal policy development, he stated.

Nelson stated any comment regarding the matter would come from Mayor Marcel Michaels, as the official spokesperson of Council.

Michaels stated Nelson was given a recommendation from the Town’s legal counsel through the CAO which supported him to exercise his right to recuse himself from the discussion. 

“I do not speak nor decide to why a councillor may or may not exercise their right to recuse themselves. This decision lies in the hands of the individual to do so at their discretion,” Michaels said.

The current legal policy states that councillors are solely responsible for their own legal fees even in cases they may not be culpable, Coun. Ryan Maguhn explained.

He said there are a number of potential situations in which a councillor may be in need of receiving legal advice on issues in conflict with the town or separate from the town.

In a council meeting on Oct. 1, 2019, administration admitted they had two outstanding legal cases, however details of the cases were not provided.

According to the report at that time from administration, additional funds were anticipated in 2020 to address unsettled legal matters of approximately $300,000.

Additionally, $330,000 would be required to meet a worst-case scenario as estimated by Legal Council, stated the report. 

In the 2020-2023 budget document available on the Town website, the CAO department includes a 2020 line item of $264,030 in pending legal costs as well as $189,800 in 2021. The planning and development services capital plan includes $300,000 in 2020 for legal.

Councillors are currently solely responsible for their own legal fees for issues potentially outside of their control through the course of doing their jobs. 

“Quite frankly I have some huge concerns with that, I think if a councillor is doing their diligence, is doing their job, in the best faith according to the town, and they need for whatever reason outside of their control to get involved in investigations, any kind of situation like that, and if they’re ultimately not responsible or if they’re ultimately not culpable they shouldn’t be on the hook for having to go to bat for themselves,” Maguhn said.

Coun. Trevor Haas said he was curious about policies of other municipalities to see what is common practice.

While Haas said there could be things that come forward that may not be the fault of the councillor, he also felt that councillors are responsible for whatever issues may come up.

“I take that responsibility knowing that going into this position and I guess I’m a little bit on the fence,” Haas said.

He added that he’s not sure the town should be responsible for legal issues of council members.

“As a councillor, it’s my responsibility and I don’t feel very comfortable putting that on the taxpayers,” Haas continued.

Coun. Tyler Waugh and Coun. Albert Ostashek agreed that they would like to look at what other municipalities have as policies.

Waugh added that the code of conduct is the only document that speaks to any sort of legal cost, and there is a much broader scope of potential activity beyond a code of conduct complaint. 

“Whether or not it’s in favour or against, we need to address the broader range of potential action that might be faced,” Waugh said.

Coun. JoAnn Race said there are many considerations to be made when looking at the legal policy, like how much money would be covered in legal fees, or how many times someone can require legal assistance.

Mayor Michaels questioned how council should be prioritizing the legal policy discussion as there are many other policies to revisit.

He added that while he would like to revisit every policy, his concern is that this policy might not be an immediate priority.

“Administration has a number of policies, and bylaws that are slated to be reviewed and brought forward. And there’s new ones added from time to time as well on the list,” said Emily Olsen, interim CAO. 

Any high priority items wouldn’t be completed until the end of 2020, Olsen added, due to empty positions and no meetings being held currently.

Olsen added that the town hasn’t hired a new legislative clerk to fill the vacancy, which means there is nobody to actually complete the work until that position is hired.

The town hasn’t posted the position yet.

Race responded to say that with the number of policies and bylaws administration is working on, the legal policy could wait.

Maguhn added that administration doesn’t’ need to build an entire policy in the next month, but that work to gather information of policies in other municipalities could start.

“I think this is a high priority issue and it’s something that I feel strongly enough about it where, I’m not saying I’m doing this now, but I would be willing to put forward a notice of motion in the future to deal with it as such,” Maguhn said.

Michaels said a high level report could aim to come back in Oct. 2020 at the earliest.

No definitive instruction was given about the next steps on this issue.

Recreation Centre Action Items

Later in the meeting, administration read through the action pending list with council, going over items where they recommended amendments.

One action item spoke to presenting the Recreation Centre Project funding plan options by the end of Dec. 31, 2018. 

Administration recommended this be removed from the action pending list as the funding

plan and other subsequent steps will be addressed once the Recreation Centre Project is defined through Council approval.

A second action item stated that the Recreation Centre Project Management Request for Proposal Key Deliverables be brought back at a Standing Committee meeting before the end of March 2019. 

This direction was on hold as per discussions between CAO and Council in January 2019 regarding developments and progress. 

Administration now recommended that Council affirm or modify this motion as step one of establishing a direction for the Recreation Centre Project and modifying or removing other items that referred to the recreation centre and aquatics centre.

Coun. Albert Ostashek wanted something to capture the recreation centre project in the action pending list so it doesn’t completely fall off the action pending list.

Coun. Tyler Waugh agreed but said there are a couple of overarching issues that need to be better defined before council can really dig into the recreation centre issue, like recovering from COVID-19 and a better definition of the water treatment project.

“Until we have some definition there, that will define some of our financial realities as well, I think, there’s not a lot of urgency to dealing with this,” Waugh said.

Coun. Ryan Maguhn said it is still possible to advance the project itself without a sizeable capital investment.

Coun. Dewly Nelson added that he would like to see a report on the recreation centre come back before making any changes to those items on the action pending list.

“Especially for some of those big ticket items, the best place to have that discussion is in either a standing committee or regular council where we can make those decisions in a way that is most transparent,” Maguhn followed up.

Nelson sought consensus that all recreation centre related action items remain unchanged until such time administration can bring a report to council.

He added that this item needs some major changes and that something of that importance needs its own report.

“I have no interest in the public seeing us starting to remove and change recreation centre items,” he said.

Other councillors agreed that all recreation centre items remain unchanged.

Council then recommended that administration bring an amended tracking list to the regular council of June 16 2020 for decision.