MB Court of Appeal hears case of St. Andrews mayor removed from certain duties as election looms

A legal battle hangs over the race for mayor in the R.M. of St. Andrews north of Winnipeg, a dispute that on Wednesday reached the Manitoba Court of Appeal.

Incumbent mayoral candidate Joy Sul was elected mayor in 2018.

A year later, a majority of council voted to pass a bylaw to remove key duties from her including serving as chair of meetings and spokesperson for the R.M. Duties now undertaken by a new chair of council named to replace Sul.

“What is scary, why is there a mayor ballot if you can just draw a name out of a hat?” Sul said outside court on Wednesday, after a panel of three justices heard arguments in her appeal.

Those duties she was stripped of are typically done by the mayor as set out by Manitoba’s Municipal Act, which Sul’s lawyer John Stefaniuk argued can’t be undone by municipal councils.

“We’re hoping that the court will take a good look at the action of the municipality and find that the only reasonable interpretation of the Municipal Act does not allow council remove the chair function of a mayor or a head of council,” Stefaniuk said outside court.

Manitoba Court of King’s Bench Justice Vic Toews previously dismissed Sul’s case for a judicial review of the council’s actions.

Stefaniuk argued if the appeal court upholds that decision it could have consequences for others elected to municipal office in the province.

“We see this as a significant issue, especially for women and other underrepresented groups who sit on municipal councils,” Stefaniuk said.

Court heard there was no evidence Sul was removed specifically because she’s a woman. Her lawyer conceded council wasn’t running as smoothly as it should. Something Bernice Bowley, the lawyer for the R.M. of St. Andrews and current chair of council John Preun, keyed in on during her arguments.

“In passing the bylaw and resolution as it did, the municipality certainly had a reasoning processing that it was properly interpreting the legislation in order to do that,” Bowley argued in court.

“There was and is sufficient evidence that there were problems with governance conduct.”

Preun, who’s named as a respondent in the appeal and replaced Sul as chair of council, is now challenging her for the mayor’s chair in the upcoming election.

He said the dispute played a role in his decision to run.

“I would like this to be behind us so that we can bring back a government that this community deserves and move forward in a reasonable fashion,” Preun said on Wednesday.

Court heard whoever’s elected would regain the traditional role of mayor, despite the bylaw passed to remove Sul from some of her duties.

Sul said she has little to gain but a lot to lose, noting challenging this move has cost her personally around $80,000.

“There’s no financial gain for me in this,” Sul said. “It affects every mayor in all 137 municipalities.”

Bowley argued otherwise. She told the court the issues in the application are not a matter of public interest and the decision doesn’t have implications for the public at large or other municipalities.

The three Court of Appeal justices reserved their decision in the matter.

No date for a ruling was given. 

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