PHOTOS: A screenshot taken from the City of St. Albert video of the Feb. 17, 2015, City Council meeting, showing Councillor Sheena Hughes speaking about changes to the School Site Allocation Agreement, which she found unsatisfactory. Below: Councillor Cam MacKay, Councillor Bob Russell, George Cuff, author of the provincial municipal inspection report made public in late August, and outgoing Mayor Nolan Crouse.
ST. ALBERT, Alberta
When a local twice-weekly newspaper identified the three councillors whose “quite improper and irregular” behaviour was singled out for criticism by the provincial consultant hired to examine the affairs of St. Albert’s city council, the use of what George Cuff called “very disparaging language” by Councillor Sheena Hughes before an audience of school kids raised eyebrows in the community.
According to the results of a Freedom of Information request filed by the St. Albert Gazette in August, it was Ms. Hughes who was the subject of a letter of criticism sent by Muriel Martin Elementary School Principal Les Kirchner on Jan. 10, 2014, after the councillor told Grade 6 students that council candidates “can be as dumb as a sack of hammers” and still get elected.
The other two unnamed councillors whose behaviour was singled out in the report of Mr. Cuff, the municipal inspector, were Bob Russell, who is seeking re-election in the Oct. 16 civic election, and Cam MacKay, who is now running for mayor, the Gazette’s FOI filing and subsequent story revealed.
Ms. Hughes told the Gazette that the incident took place during her first two months in office, when she was still learning the ropes. “The entire time I have been on term I have strived to try to do better – whether it’s through my communication or interpersonal or understanding how the government process works – I have continually tried to do better,” Ms. Hughes told the Gazette, according to the story published on Sept. 2.
Based on an FOI filing by AlbertaPolitics.ca of some of the many documents considered by Mr. Cuff as he prepared his report, however, some of Ms. Hughes’s comments continued to arouse controversy despite her effort to do better.
For example, in a letter sent on March 3, 2015, and received on March 5 by Mayor Nolan Crouse, who is not seeking reelection, the chair and a trustee of North Central Alberta’s Francophone Education Region No. 2 complained about language used by Ms. Hughes to describe school board officials during a city council meeting on Feb. 17, 2015.
Having viewed video clips from council’s discussion of the School Site Allocation Agreement, stemming from location of a French-language school in St. Albert’s Erin Ridge subdivision, Conseil scolaire Centre-Nord Chair Kevin Bell and Trustee Ronald St-Jean wrote that they “were very disappointed that the City Manager and three highly respected school superintendents were publicly disparaged by Councillor Sheena Hughes for doing what they are designated to do in the School Site Allocation Agreement.”
“… We can clearly hear her use the term ‘corrupt’ to describe our senior officials while reading her personal notes,” the letter from Mr. Bell and Mr. St-Jean stated.
Videotape of the council meeting is still available on the City of St. Albert website. On it, at one point, Ms. Hughes can be heard to say in regard to changes made to the site allocation agreement signed by the City of St. Albert, the Francophone Education Region, the St. Albert Roman Catholic Separate School District, and the St. Albert Public School District: “The changes in this document are nothing more than superficial, just to give the appearance that issues are being addressed, but in reality this revised document is a further deliberate erosion of a corrupt democracy in St. Albert, where large decisions are made in back rooms by individuals and not directly by people who are accountable to residents of St. Albert.”
Said Mr. Bell and Mr. St-Jean said in their letter to the mayor: “This appallingly disrespectful term deserves, at the very least, a full and public retraction, and preferably a full and public apology.”
Later in the Feb. 17, 2015, meeting, toward the end of the debate, Ms. Hughes again used a barely audible word that sounded like corrupt – “this one example of what happens when you take away all of council’s [INAUDIBLE] control.
Within one minute, however, the following exchange took place:
Mayor Crouse: “Thank you, uh… Councilor, I want to just understand. You used the word ‘corrupt,’ and … Who were you … ?”
Councillor Hughes: [Mike off, barely audible] “I did not use the word corrupt. …”
Mayor Crouse: “Oh, OK, I misunderstood. I thought you used the word corrupt, but I made a mistake.”
Councillor Hughes: “No, I did not.”
Mayor Crouse: “OK, thank you.”
However, it seems clear from the context that the reference in the letter from Mr. Bell and Mr. St-Jean was to the first comment, some minutes before.
No explanation, retraction or apology by Ms. Hughes appears ever to have been reported.
In an email dated Oct. 2, 2015, the former planning and development director of the city of St. Albert, Carol Bergum, passed on a complaint by two persons who are not city employees who were unhappy about a public encounter with the councillor.
“I am shocked to hear of this kind of behaviour,” Ms. Bergum wrote, promising to document the details of the situation and forward it to city officials.
In addition, a partly redacted email dated Oct. 28, 2015, from Councillor Hughes accuses the city manager of the day of making incorrect statements, then continues, “While not impressed with the overstatements, I am no longer surprised.”
Ms. Hughes was defended for her tone by Councillor MacKay in an email he sent to all councillors a day later. That email became one of Mr. Cuff’s reported examples of inappropriate behaviour by the three council members.
In it, Mr. MacKay made the controversial accusation there is a “culture of dishonesty” and a “lack of truthfulness and lack of accountability” at City Hall, and claimed city staff often provided answers to questions by council members that are “not truthful.”
Of these and other comments, Mr. Cuff wrote: “Statements which are purposely derogatory, mean-spirited, and caustic and designed to undermine rather than lift up have no place in a civil forum. … The issue is not the fact that 2-3 members are frequently in opposition to the others on Council. The real issue is how that opposition is expressed between all parties on Council.”
Click here to read the documents provided by the City of St. Albert in response to the FOI request by AlbertaPolitics.ca. Not all documents requested by the FOI filing were provided by the city. City officials refused to confirm or deny the existence of a requested document, as permitted under Section 12 (2) of the Alberta Freedom of Information and Privacy Act.