Court Dismisses Disqualification Cases Against Councillor Wright
On May 31st, Justice Devlin of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench issued his ruling on the two disqualification cases brought against Councillor Wright by Rocky View County. He dismissed both charges. You can access the ruling here.
Justice Devlin’s ruling is a complete vindication for Wright. Throughout his ruling, Devlin made it clear that he was not impressed with council’s behaviour. He was also highly critical of council’s attempt to have the courts “lend its authority to unfair and politically motivated processes”.
Regarding the pecuniary interest charge, Devlin threw out the allegations because the County failed to present evidence to support its claims. As he pointed out, “the CAO [Al Hoggan] was unable to articulate any basis on which to believe the [neighbour’s] development would increase or decrease the value of Councillor Wright’s home”.
In reaching this conclusion, the judge agreed “that a development approval for a neighbour almost always brings the possibility of some impact on one’s own property. However, that is not the standard for finding a disqualifying pecuniary interest under the MGA”. Instead, he emphasized that the purpose of the MGA was to ensure “that elected councillors actively represent their constituents on all decisions, including, and perhaps especially, those that touch their areas most directly, up to the line where a clear and material financial impact on the councillor or her family comes into focus.” He concluded “that line is not crossed in this case”.
Despite finding that Wright did not have a pecuniary interest, Devlin took his ruling one step further. He emphasized that even if he had found that Wright had a disqualifying pecuniary interest, he would have exercised his discretion and “would not have ordered her removal from council.” His reasoning was crystal clear – “Councillor Wright approached the issue in good faith and with due diligence … The use of this pretense to remove her is transparently a function of a political feud on Rocky View’s Council”.
Devlin also emphasized that CAO Hoggan could not explain why council waited a year to bring forward Wright’s alleged pecuniary interest. He stated that he believed that council’s motivation “was driven by political hostility against her rather than by any genuine concern over the propriety of her votes” on her neighbour’s property. He further concluded that council’s behaviour had “more to do with removing a political adversary than upholding ethics in governance”.
With respect to Wright’s unpaid property taxes, the judge agreed that on a factual basis she could be disqualified. However, he stressed that the crucial question was “whether the Court should confirm her disqualification or exercise its discretion to permit her to serve the balance of her term”.
Devlin concluded that, while Wright should have exercised due diligence to ensure her taxes were paid, “she did not knowingly allow this state of affairs to arise.” He substantiated this by adding, “it does not make sense that Councillor Wright would consciously have allowed a situation to arise that made her vulnerable to automatic disqualification, given the highly contentious political climate that had developed on the Council”.
The judge was particularly critical of the special council meeting dealing with Wright’s unpaid taxes. In case you don’t remember that meeting was held a mere 48 hours before the judicial review of her sanctions. Devlin observed that this timing was “striking”. He also took particular exception to Council denying Wright’s request to seek legal counsel. Devlin criticized the fact that Wright was not informed in advance about the meeting’s purpose, describing that choice as an attempt at “ambushing her.” In reference to the charges themselves, he called them “a transparent attempt to recruit this Court into a politically motivated ouster, largely unmoored from any actual ethical concerns.”
The County attempted to justify the timing for the special meeting on the basis that its automated property tax system had only just produced individualized information identifying Wright as being in arrears on her property taxes. The judge conceded that the County’s explanation “answers the otherwise-available inference that Councillor Wright’s political enemies were trolling for bases to have her removed”. However, he dismissed the relevance of their explanation since it failed to provide any justification for the urgency with which Council dealt with the issue.
In exercising his discretion, Devlin stated that what tipped the scales in Wright’s favour was “the hasty, unfair, and extrinsically motivated manner in which Council treated Councillor Wright’s tax issue.” He continued by saying that “put bluntly, basic procedural fairness was abandoned when the MD and Council were presented with an opportunity to remove Councillor Wright”.
In his conclusion, Devlin was emphatic that, “the voters will pass judgment on the entirety of Councillor Wright’s performance along with that of her colleagues. That is the outcome in the interests of democratic integrity and the proper administration of justice in this particular case”. Devlin’s observation that voters need to pass judgment on every councillor’s performance highlights the dysfunctional nature of the majority on Rocky View’s council and implies that voters can deliver change.
From our perspective, Justice Devlin’s ruling is a damning condemnation of the decisions to bring these charges against Wright. It is one thing to think the charges were politically motivated. It is quite another thing to have that interpretation confirmed by the courts.
We only hope that the council majority will take this denunciation to heart and stop the meaningless appeal of the sanctions case and finally repay Wright, along with Hanson and Kissel, the salary that was inappropriately withheld under the thrown-out sanctions.
Perhaps now the majority might actually acknowledge that differences of opinion are not only a legitimate, but a critically necessary, component of democratic government. Group think rarely, if ever, results in optimal decisions.
The next municipal election is on October 18th. It will be up to you to decide what you want the next Council to look like. Do you want Rocky View residents to re-elect those who are willing to carry out personal vendettas on the back of the public purse (your tax dollars) in their attempts to silence those councillors who have done their best to advocate for their communities?