PHOTOS: St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse. Below: Mayoral candidates Cam MacKay and Cathy Heron.
ST. ALBERT, Alberta
An Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice yesterday dismissed an application by a St. Albert resident to have Mayor Nolan Crouse removed from office based on allegations the mayor had violated provisions of the Municipal Government Act dealing with the actions of council members who have a pecuniary interest in matters before council.
Steve Stone, who is now a candidate for city council, sought a declaration from the court that Mr. Crouse had a monetary interest in three motions before council in 2015 and 2016 – one concerning hiring an independent auditor to perform a forensic audit of council expenses, one proposing a limit on city funding of a defamation action by the city manager, and one related to environmental concerns at a city property near another property owned by a company owned by the mayor.
In his written decision handed down yesterday after he heard the matter on July 26, Mr. Justice Brian Burrows ruled that while the mayor should technically have recused himself from council’s deliberations on the first two motions dealing with expense claims and defamation funding, the violations of the act were technical and minor.
The judge wrote that in both technical violations Mayor Crouse appeared to have made an error in good faith after taking advice from city officials.
“In my view, disqualification in these circumstances would be unreasonably harsh, unjust and entirely inappropriate,” Justice Burrows said of the expense claim audit motion.
Similarly, on the defamation funding motion, the judge ruled that “disqualification of Mayor (sic) would be out of all proportion to the seriousness of his violation of the pecuniary interest rules. That violation was in the circumstances technical. Disqualification would be unjustly harsh.”
In both cases he ruled that Mr. Crouse could remain a member of council.
As for the environmental matter, Justice Burrows rejected Mr. Stone’s arguments.
“I have determined that it would be entirely unjust and disproportional to the seriousness of the violations to declare Mayor Crouse disqualified and his position on St. Albert City Council to be vacant,” the judge wrote in his disposition of the case.
This ruling can be seen as a vindication of Mr. Crouse. The judge’s decision and commentary suggests the mayor did not intend to be dishonest, but was trying to navigate a complex and difficult situation with care, seeking the advice of the city’s administration and lawyers. As for the environmental matter, the judge saw it as being without merit.
The court’s decision will be seen by many St. Albertans as a setback for supporters of the mayoral campaign of Councillor Cam MacKay, which seems from online commentary to have hoped the mayor would be removed from office, even though he is not seeking re-election.
During the July 26 hearing, Mayor Crouses’s lawyers questioned the involvement in the case of Councillor MacKay’s father, Cameron D. MacKay, whom the St. Albert Gazette reported had ordered and paid for transcripts given to the court by Mr. Stone.
The reasons Councillor MacKay, who is deputy mayor for July and August, waited outside the courtroom during the hearing remain controversial among many St. Albertans.
On the day of the hearing Councillor MacKay told a St. Albert Gazette reporter that if the judge had removed the mayor from office, “I would have had to do a whole bunch of stuff in the evening and [the next] morning.”
He later made a statement online that said that this stuff might include “informing the city manager so appropriate security measures could be taken, preparing a press release for the media, calling a special council meeting to determine next steps, or taking no action at all.”
However, as a result of Justice Burrow’s ruling, the interim deputy mayor will not be called upon to do anything during his short rotation in that role.
Mr. Stone was represented in the matter before the court by Brent Rathgeber, the former Conservative Member of Parliament for the federal riding that includes the City of St. Albert. Lawyers for the parties “may arrange to speak to costs,” the judge noted at the end of his ruling.
The election campaign is already effectively under way, with nomination day set for Sept. 18. The only other candidate for mayor to have declared so far is Councillor Cathy Heron, whom Councillor MacKay’s supporters have tried to tie to Mayor Crouse. Elections will take place in municipalities throughout Alberta on Oct. 16.
Another shoe remains to fall in St. Albert’s political closet.
That is, the Municipal Affairs Ministry’s inspection of governance practices at the City of St. Albert, another procedural matter that has the potential to impact the St. Albert city council election and which is expected to to be resolved before the day of the election.
The review was ordered by the provincial Municipal Affairs minister based on a request from St. Albert City Council late last year. The request was made after strong disagreements on council broke out over the hiring of a sitting councillor as a city employee.
The inspection report is expected to be made public before the election, and may identify elected officials who have contributed to the increasingly dysfunctional nature of council operations.
NOTE: This story has been updated with information about the Municipal Affairs Ministry’s inspection report.