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Witless Bay residents frustrated with chaotic and stagnant town council

People dropped by Ragged Beach in Witless Bay on a sunny Friday to enjoy the beach and its view of the bay, where whales were seen in abundance. An area of land near the beach is the subject of a controversial development proposal that started years of chaos at the town council in Witless Bay.
People dropped by Ragged Beach in Witless Bay on a sunny Friday to enjoy the beach and its view of the bay, where whales were seen in abundance. An area of land near the beach is the subject of a controversial development proposal that started years of chaos at the town council in Witless Bay.

At Ragged Beach in Witless Bay Friday afternoon, two things were on people’s minds.

One was the large number of whales at play around tour boats and kayakers in the bright blue water just off the shore, and the other was the major disruption at Tuesday’s town council meeting.

Ragged Beach is a popular, beautiful area in the Southern Shore town that the East Coast Trail runs through, and that many people visit to enjoy the beach and watch the activity on the bay.

A proposed housing development for the area some years ago ignited controversy in the town and led to a number of tumultuous years for the Witless Bay town council.

This year, the town council — down to four members from seven — has not been able to hold a successful regular meeting since May.

“It’s all about that area over there,” one man pointed to a friend who had been whale watching Friday afternoon. “The whole racket (on council) is about the development of that land there.”

The man didn’t want to provide his name and laughed when asked to, saying, “I’m not getting in the middle of that.”

The land he was referring to looked from a distance like rolling, green fields amongst the trees, overlooking the beach and bay. Quite the attraction for a developer, it would seem.

Edward Vickers, who heads up the Friends of Ragged Beach Society, said in an email that the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment is well aware of what the disruption and chaos in Witless Bay and nearby Bay Bulls is all about — development.

“While my concern is primarily focused on protection of the remaining beachfront from development, and the protection of public access to this public land, I often attempt to inform the media of incorrect facts that form the basis of stories on our town.

“There are four councillors remaining on council, and one would think that quorum is always present as the minister (Municipal Affairs and Environment Minister Eddie Joyce) and your paper claim. However, when people run for council with motives to help a particular person(s) or to have a project move forward, instead of in the community interest, conflicts arise. The minister is fully aware that the issues in Witless Bay and Bay Bulls are driven by development, and by the integrated effort of the same group of interested and connected people affecting both towns.”

On Tuesday night, Coun. Ralph Carey stood on a point of order shortly after the meeting began. Carey wanted to put two motions forward regarding a recent Newfoundland Supreme Court decision involving former deputy mayor Fraser Paul.

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

At Tuesday evening’s meeting, Carey wanted council to pass a motion to formally dismiss Paul from council back-dated to the time he was sworn in last fall. That would be for “legal protection” for the town should any matters arise out of past decisions that Paul had voted on.

The other motion, Carey said, would be in support of the town’s returning officer to ask police to investigate the residency issues and seek recommendations on how a similar circumstance can be avoided in future elections.

Mayor Maureen Murphy said Carey was out of order and that the issue was not on the agenda.

An audio recording of the meeting distributed by social media and emailed to The Telegram reveals a lot of shouting and heated words, not only by Carey and Murphy, but by members of the public who attended.

The chaos continued until Murphy banged her gavel several times and adjourned the meeting.

One of the many pieces of town business not addressed was the setting of a date for nominations in the town for the September municipal elections.

Geraldine Caul, the town’s chief administrative officer, said the mayor will now likely have to call a special meeting of council to try to get that important date set.

Meanwhile, Witless Bay resident Lorna Yard, who challenged Paul’s residency in court and won the case, says the lack of action taken by the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment since the court decision has caused her to consider launching a complaint with the RCMP to look into possible election fraud.

“People in this town are frustrated and can’t even get permits to build a house,” Yard said. “People are getting upset with each other and it’s casting a bad vibe over the town. It needs to be resolved one way or another and so I’ve decided to launch a complaint.”

Yard said Joyce had a number of opportunities to prevent the current chaotic situation in the town. She said there were a number of complaints put forward by residents about Paul’s residency claims prior to the October byelection. She said the department failed to properly investigate the issue.

Yard said she has written to Joyce and the premier’s office to try to get action taken.

Joyce has responded to The Telegram, saying the court decision is under review by the Department of Justice and Public Safety.

Yard said the provincial government has had lots of time to review the decision and take corrective action, including any penalties that need to be given.

“I am incredulous,” Yard said. “You spend your whole life thinking government institutions take their job seriously and have a duty to people to do their jobs. This case has shaken my belief in them.

“All this could have been stopped before it got to court, and now look at it. It’s 10 times worse.”

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