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Fractious Witless Bay council meeting ends in split vote

The town council of Witless Bay hasn’t been able to move town business forward this summer due to meetings being cancelled because not enough councillors have shown up for scheduled meetings.
The town council of Witless Bay hasn’t been able to move town business forward this summer due to meetings being cancelled because not enough councillors have shown up for scheduled meetings.

As town councils around the province go about passing a motion to set a nomination date in their community for next month’s municipal elections, the Witless Bay town council failed on two attempts this week to get that one routine thing done.

Witless Bay Mayor Maureen Murphy took the helm of a troubled town council in May. She tries to keep a positive outlook though its been a difficult summer for moving town business forward.

But nothing is routine or easy these days in Witless Bay municipal politics. It’s just one more snarl in a summer of failed meetings and stalled town business due to divisions in the town and on council over the town plan and development issues.

During a special public meeting of council Thursday evening with only one item on the agenda — to set a nomination date — the four councillors present split the vote 2-2, meaning the motion failed.

Mayor Maureen Murphy and Coun. Vince Swain voted in favour of the motion to set Aug. 29 as the nomination date, while councillors Ralph Carey and Kevin Smart voted against it.

A meeting on Tuesday night was cancelled due to a lack of quorum.

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At Thursday’s meeting Carey and Smart said they believe the town should find out first what, if anything, the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment is going to do regarding a court decision that ruled former deputy mayor Fraser Paul faked his residency in Witless Bay prior to an October 2016 byelection.

The Department of Justice and Public Safety has reviewed the court’s decision and has provided its findings to Municipal Affairs, but that department has not indicated yet if any action will be taken against Paul or if there will be any tightening of rules regarding the residency information of potential candidates in the upcoming and future elections.

Following Thursday’s meeting, Murphy said she will now write Eddie Joyce, minister of Municipal Affairs and Environment, to seek direction on where to go from here.

“That’s it, the motion failed,” she said. “I’m going to write to the minister asking for direction.”

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for Murphy who has only been mayor since May after two resignations from council left it with five members. Following the court decision, Paul had to vacate his seat in July, leaving the council with four members.

In total six meetings — including regular and special meetings of council — have been cancelled this summer due to lack of quorum since the last successful meeting in May.

Then a regular monthly meeting of council on Aug. 8 went off the rails quickly and was adjourned before any of a long list of backed-up town business could be dealt with.

It’s been a summer of stalled town business that has frustrated many residents.

The agenda for the Aug. 8 meeting had included about 28 items under public works and infrastructure alone. Those items included applications for permits for personal garages, sheds, fences, decks, landscaping, a chicken coop, as well as a daycare business, a home-based business and a request regarding land for a subdivision.

Under finance and economic development, there were eight items waiting approval ranging from the paying of invoices to a tax recovery plan for 2017, and the tender process for the hiring of an engineer to look at issues at the playground and pool.

Under planning and development, there were 12 items waiting to be dealt with including things such as approving the utilization of gas tax funding for roadwork, dugouts for the recreation field, pothole repair tender results, and dealing with a request to have the local fire department respond to an area outside of the town’s boundary (LaManche Park).

Murphy said after many failed attempts to get councillors together for meetings in June and July, the Aug. 8 meeting looked promising. She said she felt that finally they would get caught up on outstanding town business.

“I went to the meeting so happy because I thought we’d get business moving,” Murphy said earlier on Thursday. “The agenda and the minutes from the May 9 meeting were adopted, and then Coun. (Ralph) Carey got up and distributed an item he wanted addressed on a point of order.”

That’s when that meeting started to go off the rails, as it were.

An audio recording of the meeting circulated on social media provides a sense of how things escalated.

The meeting actually started off cordial enough with Murphy jokingly saying that though they had a long agenda, they hoped to be finished before Chase the Ace began the following night which drew laughter.

When Carey rose on the point of order, he passed out a paper with two motions on it regarding issues surrounding former deputy mayor Paul.

Paul, a local developer and businessman, was found by Newfoundland Supreme Court to have faked his residency in Witless Bay before an October 2016 by-election when he was first voted onto council. As a result of the court decision, Paul had to vacate his council seat earlier this summer.

Carey wanted council to pass a motion to formally dismiss Paul from council back-dated to the time of him winning the byelection. That, he said, would be for legal protection of the town should any matters arise out of past decisions Paul had voted on.

The second motion Carey wanted passed was to ask police to investigate Paul’s residency issue and to seek recommendations on how to avoid such a situation in future elections.

Murphy said Carey was out of order because the Paul issue was not on the agenda, and that the Department of Municipal Affairs was dealing with it.

Carey kept pressing the matter, asking for discussion and then asking councillors to vote on the motions, despite Murphy pounding her gavel for order and asking Carey to sit down.

Voices steadily began to rise, spectators started to chime in — including Fraser Paul — and the meeting got out of hand. The ruckus even continued for a short time after Murphy adjourned the meeting.

Murphy said a councillor has three options for adding an item to the agenda — none of which were taken by Carey before that meeting.

If the item had been included on the agenda, Murphy said, Carey would have had an opportunity to discuss it.

“I called him out of order, at which time a councillor should take their seat,” Murphy said. “Then there’s an opportunity to appeal the chair’s (mayor’s) decision through a vote.

“He then asked for motions and for a seconder, and for discussion which is the chair’s responsibility, not a councillor’s.

“I felt disrespected, both as a person and as the mayor. When the chair makes a decision, a councillor should respect that decision. The meeting had to be adjourned and it’s unfortunate because I wanted to get the town business moving forward and dealt with.”

Murphy said the whole situation in Witless Bay is unfortunate. With the town being in the media and with so much negativity — and possibly slanderous comments — circulating on social media, it could have the effect to deter others from running for council.

“As a woman, I feel an incident like this can deter other women from running for municipal politics,” she said. “It’s unfortunate because we need more people coming forward. As for myself, I haven’t decided right now if I’m running again.”

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