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‘Failed miserably’: Court blasts rural Manitoba council for trying to oust elected official

A Manitoba judge has blasted a rural municipal council for their attempt to kick out a rookie councillor, saying they ‘failed miserably’ to communicate or compromise, while making changes they knew would set her up to fail.

Councillors in the southern Rural Municipality of Thompson had tried to oust their fellow councillor Donna Cox back in May 2023 – a move that is being rebuked by Manitoba’s highest trial court.

“Generally, communication, collaboration and compromise are hallmarks of good governance; here the Municipality failed miserably,” Manitoba Court of King’s Bench Justice Chris Martin wrote in his decision released earlier in February.

“Just because the Municipality believed it had a legal right to act as it did, does not mean it was right to do so.”

Martin said Cox remains as an elected councillor in the RM of Thompson.

Council made changes that left Cox ‘bound to fail’, judge says

This all started when Thompson councillors had Cox escorted out of the council chambers last spring, saying she was being disqualified – something the province said only the court has the power to do.

The RM had been relying on a section of Manitoba’s Municipal Act, which says a councillor is disqualified if they miss three consecutive council meetings or local urban district (LUD) committee meetings without leave.

“Critically, I have no doubt the absences were not a matter of neglect, irresponsibility, or intention to flout her obligations to attend meetings,” Martin said in his decision.

Cox was not aware she was still on the committee, after the RM’s Reeve Brian Callum had been appointed as an alternate due to scheduling concerns.

Martin said the five other councillors – all of whom are self-employed –changed the times of the meetings despite objections from Cox, who works full-time, and said her employer refused to give her additional unpaid time off to accommodate the change.

Martin said he has no doubt Reeve Callum and the other councillors were fully aware that the change of meeting times would make it difficult for Cox to attend, if not prevent her from attending altogether.

“With those changes, it should have been clear she was bound to fail,” he wrote.

He went on to say there was no apparent consideration of the voters who elected Cox as their councillor.

“A municipality cannot, in a situation such as this, in effect, obstruct a councillor and disenfranchise voters, by taking actions it knows, or should reasonably know, will preclude the elected representative from fulfilling their function,” he said.

RM of Thompson considering appeal

In a statement to CTV News, the RM said it is considering appeal options.

“Council for the Municipality acted in accordance with the provisions of The Municipal Act, as well as our duties and obligations to our ratepayers when a councillor has failed to attend meetings and missed three consecutive meetings,” the statement reads.

Joe Aiello, the lawyer representing Cox in the case, said his client is relieved with the decision and is hopeful she will be able to return to her post.

He said this decision sends a message to voters in the municipality.

“To see a new councillor removed, contrary to what is now the law, I think would have been disconcerting for the ratepayer, but now I suppose they have some confidence back that their vote means something,” he told CTV News.

Decision speaks to need for Municipal Act update, rural mayor says

The decision is welcome news to RM of St. Andrews Mayor Joy Sul, who went through a similar court case after her council attempted to strip her of her duties as mayor.

Sul won her case in an appeal.

“It’s a democracy issue. You’re voted in by the residents,” she told CTV News.

She believes Manitoba’s Municipal Act needs to be updated so this sort of thing doesn’t happen in other rural municipalities.

“It’s so outdated. There has to be a clarification. There is a lot of conflicting sections of the act, and it’s put up to interpretation, and sadly for myself and Donna, that’s all personal expense we have to go to.”

A provincial spokesperson told CTV News, Manitoba Municipal Relations Minister Ian Bushie was unable to comment on the matter as the RM does have the ability to appeal the decision.

Aiello said this decision from the court will also provide direction and guidance to other municipalities going through similar situations.

“By the judge’s decision, the intent was to provide some clarity for municipalities going forward, and I think that that was achieved,” he said.

In a statement to CTV News, Cox said she has every intention of fulfilling her duties as a councillor.

Whether or not she will be allowed to do that, remains to be seen.

The next council meeting is scheduled for March. When asked if the RM will allow Cox to sit as a councillor at the meeting, Reeve Callum said they are still looking for an answer to that question.

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