Judge rules on 'dysfunctional' Thorhild County council

The embattled Thorhild County council got its day in court. It lost a judicial review of Municipal Affairs ministry orders demanding the firing of three of five council members.

‘This is the nuclear bomb of municipal law’

Thorhild County Council: (left to right) Shelly Hanasyk, Wayne Croswell, Larry Sisson, Dan Buryn, Kevin Grumetza (Thorhild County)

Every seat in a fourth-floor Edmonton courtroom was packed with residents from Thorhild County Friday. It's a rural community 45 minutes north of Edmonton that is bitterly divided over municipal politics.  

Residents watched lawyers argue about whether a judge should overturn orders issued by the Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister to fire three of the county's five members of council.  

Former Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee removed reeve Dan Buryn and councillors Larry Sisson and Wayne Crosswell from office in March 2015 after a third-party inspection unearthed "irregular, improper and improvident" actions and inappropriate behaviour, including violations of conflict of interest and confidentiality rules.

The next day, the two councillors and the reeve were granted a temporary injunction, staying the ministerial order and allowing them to return to work the following week. They've remained on the job ever since, with continuous oversight from the province.

Thorhild County Reeve Dan Buryn hasn't decided if he will run again this October (Rick Bremness/CBC)

"We continue to do the work but we're constantly manipulated by these official administrators," Reeve Dan Buryn said outside court.

"It's been absolute torture."

Council granted judicial review

A lawyer representing the Thorhild County council argued the three ousted council members were not given a chance to defend themselves after allegations regarding their conduct were made by the provincially appointed investigator.  

Government lawyer William Olthuis told Justice John Little the province's investigation was "neutral and thorough" and the minister owed a duty to the county as a whole, not just to individual councillors.  

The lawyer representing the council vehemently disagreed.

"This is the nuclear bomb of municipal law," Ian Wachowicz said. "I think it's very clear that procedural fairness was not given to the county to respond."

"A scathing report comes out and they don't get a chance to respond to it. It's that simple."

Justice Little agreed the government could have been less "heavy-handed" when it delivered the first ministerial order.  

"There may have been collateral damage to egos and reputations by virtue of the heavy-handed way the report was delivered," Little said.  

"But that's not enough to quash the ministerial orders. I find the minister exercised control fairly in the circumstances."

After the judge left the courtroom, a group of women in the back row smiled and said quietly, "We won. We won."

Expensive legal exercise for the county

Friday's judicial review carried a hefty price tag that will be borne by taxpayers.  

"The majority of the residents didn't want this judicial review," area resident Angela Zilinski said outside court. "They didn't want them to spend over $162,000 of taxpayers' money for this judicial review."

Thorhild County resident Angela Zilinski launched the petition that initiated a review process by the provincial government into the council. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

She blamed the decision to apply for a judicial review on the five-member council that is weighted in favour of the three councillors who face dismissal.

"The vote was a three-to-two again. Again, the three win. They're just trying to save their reputations. It's not their money. If they want to do that, go and do it with their own money."

Zilinski estimated three-quarters of the people who attended court Friday were opposed to paying for a judicial review. They are solidly in the camp of area residents who want the reeve and two councillors to be removed from office.

Meanwhile, after years of turmoil, a municipal election will be held again in October.  

The lawyer for the county said the three embattled politicians may run for re-election.

Dan Burmyn said he hasn't made up his mind yet.  

But Angela Zilinski had a strong opinion.

"They're not going to get re-elected," she said.