Rural council looks to Manitoba court after ousting fellow councillor

A legal battle over a rural Manitoba council’s decision to oust one of its members has reached Manitoba’s highest trial court.

Councillors in the Rural Municipality of Thompson attempted to disqualify fellow councillor Donna Cox in the spring.

It all comes down to a section of Manitoba’s Municipal Act, which says a councillor is disqualified if they miss three consecutive council meetings or local urban district (LUD) committee meetings without leave.

While Cox conceded she did miss three committee meetings, her lawyers argued she didn’t even know she was on the committee at that time. They have also alleged the council changed the times of the meetings knowing it would be more difficult for Cox to attend.

In the months since, Cox has not been allowed to sit as a councillor, and her name has been removed from the rural municipality’s website.

However, Cox has refused to resign her position.

“Our view is that she isn’t disqualified until the court declares her such,” Cox’s lawyer Joe Aiello said following the hearing Tuesday.

The Rural Municipality is now seeking that declaration from the court to officially remove her.

During the hearing in Manitoba’s Court of King’s Bench Tuesday, Justice Chris Martin questioned if there should have been a collective responsibility from Thompson’s council to make an effort to accommodate all councillors.

“We are talking about six people elected in a municipality to do the work of its constituents, who prima facie are expected to work together hand in hand to ensure that each one of the councillors, one for the other, can fulfil the role that they were elected for,” Martin said. “There was no give by this committee or this council in that respect.”

However Maria Grande, the lawyer representing the RM of Thompson, said this is not a case of personal animus against Cox.

“While the respondent may feel unfairly treated, that is not at all what this case is about,” Grande said. “It is simply the rural municipality following legislation and its obligation and responsibility to do so in the context of the council member missing three consecutive LUD meetings with no advance leave.”

Grande said the Municipal Act allows the court only two options: declare Cox disqualified or dismiss the application.

She argued the court cannot dismiss the application because it is undisputed Cox missed three meetings.

“Nor is there a provision in the Municipal Act that says that you have discretion to look at inadvertence or a judgment issue, or something like that,” she said, telling Martin his role in the case is to enforce the legislation.

However, Aiello challenged that interpretation of the Municipal Act, arguing the court has complete discretion and can reinstate Cox as councillor.

He said, while the legislation may not be as clear as one would like, it was drafted with the intention of giving the court discretion.

He said any other interpretation of the act becomes an issue of democracy.

“The difficulty with an interpretation that concludes that you can simply eliminate a councillor from their position just because they miss three meetings is that it’s prone to abuse,” Aiello said.

“It would be much easier to quell an unfriendly voice or an unpopular one or one with which you don’t agree – and that doesn’t speak to democracy in our view.”

Martin reserved his decision in the case.

Brian Callum, the reeve for the RM of Thompson was present in court, but declined to comment until a decision is made.

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