North·In Depth

Residents in Norman Wells, N.W.T., call for mayor, council, SAO to resign

A group of Norman Wells residents have launched a petition demanding the community’s mayor, council and senior administrative officer resign — the latest flare-up in legal and political strife that has engulfed the town for years.

Petition is latest development in a years-long legal and political saga in the town

A sign for the Town of Norman Wells, N.W.T., town office in October 2018. A group of residents have launched a petition demanding the community's mayor, council and senior administrative officer resign. (Katie Toth/CBC)

A group of residents in Norman Wells, N.W.T., have launched a petition demanding the community's mayor, council and senior administrative officer resign — the latest flare-up in legal and political strife that has engulfed the town for years. 

The force driving the petition, says former mayor Nathan Watson, is "a complete and utter lack of accountability and transparency" from town leadership.

The group behind the petition is also demanding an independent inquiry and a forensic audit of the town's finances. They won't say how many signatures they've gotten so far. 

The petition comes as a years-long dispute involving town council, its former senior administrative officer (SAO) Catherine Mallon and Watson once again makes the news. 

On Jan. 25, Mayor Frank Pope and his council declared they had "chosen to take the moral high ground," and were dropping the fraud lawsuit they launched against Mallon in 2019. 

Watson was a co-defendant in that suit, and both he and Mallon later sued the town, alleging damage to their reputations. 

The mayor and council's statement inflamed Mallon, who called it "a pathetic attempt to justify four years of [the town's] misconduct." 

She said the town's allegations against her made it impossible for her to work. She now plans to seek damages, file a malicious prosecution lawsuit against the town and pursue an outstanding claim for unpaid wages.

The town's statement also lit a fire under Mallon's defenders, who said she had been maligned and that problems with town leadership run deeper than their lawsuit.

"Their public statement is garbage. It's self-serving," said Watson. "It's a lot of the reason that we're going to have no problem getting enough of our fellow residents who are upset about not just this, but all sorts of other things, to come with us and see if we can force some change."

Council plans to 'vigorously defend' itself

Under the threat of another lawsuit, the mayor and council released a second statement last Friday. It struck a markedly different tone from the one two days prior.

They said they have evidence to support their original claim against Mallon, and that they'll "vigorously defend" themselves against any lawsuit she files.

This week, Pope told CBC neither he nor council has done anything wrong, and he has no intention of stepping down. 

The town has been "fairly transparent" about most of its business, said Pope — it's the legal matters they've had to be tight-lipped about.

"Because anything that's said publicly in our community gets leaked out very quickly, and we've got to keep our cards close to our vest on anything to do with legal," he said.

Yes, this saga has dragged on, conceded Pope, "but I don't think it's over yet [now] that Ms. Mallon wants to come back at us."

Frank Pope, the mayor in Norman Wells, says he has no intention of stepping down. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

History of dysfunction

The town's tangle with Mallon precedes its 2019 civil suit against her. 

Dysfunction at the local government was recorded at least as far back as the summer of 2017, when Watson was mayor and Mallon was SAO.

That's when John Hazenberg, a municipal inspector, submitted a damning assessment of Norman Wells' governance to then-Municipal and Community Affairs Minister (and now premier) Caroline Cochrane.

"Councillors are eager to micromanage administration and completely lose track of governance issues," he wrote in his August 2017 inspection report. 

"The mayor has difficulty in maintaining control due to lack of discipline displayed by most councillors," two of which, Hazenberg added, had "not-so-hidden" agendas that ran counter to the best interests of the community. 

"It would be an understatement to say there is a very poor working relationship between the council and the town manager [Mallon]. Most councillors are suspicious to the extreme about the town manager's administration and continually demand all kinds of information."

Mallon, in turn, spends many hours on evenings and weekends working to get that information for the councillors, wrote Hazenberg.

Former Norman Wells mayor Nathan Watson said the force driving the petition calling for town leadership to resign is 'a complete and utter lack of accountability and transparency' from town leadership. (Richard Gleeson/CBC)

Dissolution

Watson and some of his councillors responded to the inspection in a letter to Cochrane, obtained by CBC. It acknowledged conflicts of interest and "real or perceived personal agendas" that affected their ability to govern properly.

They wrote that they had begun correcting their errors and were reviewing their policies — namely their Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards, which they said were "woefully inadequate."

Watson and then-councillors Harold McGregor, Heidi Deschene and Pamela Gray signed the letter. Coun. Sherry Hodgson's signature is missing, but the letter states she indicated her agreement verbally. 

Councillors Lise Dolen and Tim Melnyk did not sign the letter.

The "last-gasp letter," as Watson later described it, wasn't enough to satisfy Cochrane.

On Oct. 18, 2017, she took the extraordinary step of dissolving the town council and appointing a municipal administrator to assume council's responsibilities. 

Nearly one year to the day later, Frank Pope was elected mayor

'Forensic analysis'

The town filed its lawsuit against Mallon and Watson seven months after the 2018 town election. 

It alleged Mallon "converted" more than $1.2 million in town assets for personal use, and that Watson, as mayor, illegally signed a contract approving retroactive overtime pay. 

Central to the town's suit was a "forensic analysis" of Mallon's pay and the expenses she charged to the town between Nov. 1, 2015, and Oct. 1, 2018.

Yellowknife accounting firm EPR delivered that analysis to Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) in June of 2019.

"Some of our staff found some stuff that was kind of dubious," said Pope, when asked who initiated the investigation of Mallon. He said the town asked MACA to look into it, and MACA went ahead with a "forensic audit."

EPR's analysis cast doubt on the legitimacy of some of Mallon's transactions. It also noted key documents were missing. 

For example, EPR's report said some of Mallon's expense claims do a poor job of describing how charges relate to town business, and often lacked supporting documents. It called her overtime claims for 3,887 hours, at a gross amount of $527,905, "out of the ordinary," but pointed out that timesheets were missing.

In her affidavit related to the fraud lawsuit, Mallon says the allegations against her are false and based on rumour and speculation.

She said there are "serious problems" with EPR's report, and that the writer either failed to consult, or didn't have access to, receipts, timesheets and other documents that support the transactions in question.

Central to the town's lawsuit against Mallon was a 'forensic analysis' of her pay and the expenses she charged to the town, conducted for Municipal and Community Affairs by Yellowknife accounting firm EPR. (Katie Toth/CBC)

Apology

Then, last November, EPR issued a press release stating its report was not a "forensic audit," and nowhere in it did the word "fraud" appear. 

The firm said it told MACA it didn't have full access to the town's financial records, and that the town didn't ask EPR's permission to use the report. 

EPR apologized to Mallon. 

Last week, Mayor Pope and his council stated they were dropping their case against Mallon in light of EPR's apology.

But Pope maintains MACA told the town EPR's report was a "forensic audit," and that it was commissioned partly on the town's behalf. 

"Four years later, the company that did the forensic audit said it wasn't a forensic audit, so we were sandbagged," he said. 

When reached for comment this week, EPR president Biswanath Chakrabarty said to call his lawyer, Peter Harte.

Harte said MACA commissioned EPR's report, and accepted it. 

"[EPR] didn't represent the work to be a forensic audit," he said. "I don't know whether it would be satisfactory evidence of fraud."

CBC sought clarity from MACA. Spokesperson Jay Boast said given the potential for legal action against the Town of Norman Wells, MACA would not be commenting. 

'Nothing is personal'

Watson believes turmoil at the town arose from personal animus. 

Mallon, who came from Ireland for the job, and who didn't look or speak like anyone else, was "an easy target," he said. 

Pope disputed accusations of ill will toward Mallon. 

"Nothing is personal," he said. 

Pope wouldn't say how much the town has spent in legal fees throughout this ordeal.

But when it's all over, he said, leadership will give the community a full accounting of what's gone on.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sidney Cohen

Journalist

Sidney Cohen is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife.

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