Judge quashes ministerial order removing Thorhild councillors

Three days before voters went to the polls last Monday in municipal elections, a Court of Queen’s Bench judge quashed a ministerial order issued in 2016 removing three council members from the embattled Thorhild County council.

Alberta government ruled in breach of procedural fairness

This file photo shows Thorhild County councillors (left to right) Shelly Hanasyk, Wayne Croswell, Larry Sisson, Reeve Dan Buryn and deputy reeve Kevin Grumetza. The provincial government removed Croswell, Sisson and Buryn from office in March 2016. (Thorhild County)

Days before voters went to the polls last Monday in municipal elections, a Court of Queen's Bench judge quashed a ministerial order that last year removed three council members from the embattled Thorhild County council.

In her Oct. 12 ruling, Justice Dawn Pentelechuk wrote "there was a breach of procedural fairness" by the March 10, 2016, ministerial order that dismissed councillors Dan Buryn and Larry Sisson and reeve Wayne Croswell.

Pentelechuk determined the order, signed by then-municipal affairs minister Danielle Larivee, failed to provide the reasons the councillors were fired or explain why they were not provided with any right to be heard. Larivee is now minister of children's services.

In her ruling, Pentelechuk wrote the minister's letter of dismissal was general and didn't outline which directives were not complied with or why.

"I thought justice has finally been served," said Croswell, who with his two fired colleagues had asked for the judicial review. "It was a relief.

Wayne Croswell is one of three council members to be removed from Thorhild County council. A judge has ruled there was a 'breach of procedural fairness.' (Thorhild County)

"I've lived in this community all my life," said Croswell.

He said the attempt to remove him from council damaged his reputation.

"It was defamatory, it made us appear reckless, and irresponsible," he said.

After the order was issued, the two councillors and reeve were granted a temporary injunction, staying the ministerial order and allowing them to return to work the following week.

Litany of problems

The rarely used minister's order of removal was issued after a long series of problems in the county dating back to July 2014.

At that time, a community petition was circulated  over a "concern with the management and governance" of Thorhild County. The petition was submitted to the minister, who was urged to investigate.

Larivee ordered a municipal inspection that unearthed "irregular, improper and improvident" actions and inappropriate behaviour, including violations of conflict of interest and confidentiality rules.

The 62-page inspection report from Russell Farmer and Associates outlined a number of examples of inappropriate behaviour.

It said one councillor violated conflict of interest rules by not recusing himself from decisions in which he had pecuniary interest.

The chief administrative officer, who had personal ties to two of the councillors, was hired even though she lacked the required experience, the report found.

The report also confirmed a high level of dysfunction within council, and noted the toxic impact it was having in the community.
A judge has quashed a ministerial order issued by former municipal affairs minister Danielle Larivee. (Legislative Assembly of Alberta)

The minister appointed official administrators in early 2016. The administrators attended council meetings and had authority to overrule any resolutions passed by council.

After a recruitment firm was retained to screen candidates for a new chief administrative officer, controversy erupted again when three of the five members of council rejected names on the short list.

That appeared to be the "tipping point," wrote Pentelechuk.

"It is apparent from a reading of the record that the three applicants did not simply 'fall in line.' "

Pentelechuk noted that Sisson refused to resign, and the other two councillors resisted an order to take legal action against Sisson to have him removed.  

The standoff with council came to a head in March 2016. "I am not satisfied with the actions of certain councillors, who opposed council's efforts to achieve compliance," Larivee wrote in the ministerial order.

Not exonerated

Justice Pentelechuk wrote that her ruling doesn't "exonerate" council, which she described as "dysfunctional and ineffective and defined by animosity."

She said residents of Thorhild County deserve a council made up of members who "understand their statutory duties and oath of office, the principles of good governance and conflict of interest."

The long and protracted problems on county council came to an end last Monday with the election of five councillors, nullifying the previous ministerial order.

Of the three council members who were dismissed at the time, Buryn was defeated and Sisson did not run again. Former reeve Croswell was re-elected.

Council veteran Kevin Grumetza, who was returned to office, said he hopes the new councillors can put troubles of the past behind them.

"I sincerely hope, for the betterment of the county and the  betterment of residents, that we're allowed to move forward," said Grumetza, who acknowledged the last four years have been difficult.  

The new Thorhild County council will hold its first meeting Wednesday, when it will choose a new reeve.

Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson, who was appointed to the job in January, refused an interview request.

Thorhild County is  95 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.