A municipal councillor’s interaction with staff in an effort to speed up approvals to open a coffee shop in town remains an ongoing topic of controversy in the northern Saskatchewan Town of La Ronge.
On Tuesday, councillor Joe Hordyski called for first-term municipal councillor Abby Besharah to resign or be forced out after resident Kelly Fiske complained about Besharah’s conduct during a tense monologue at the previous council meeting.
It all started when Besharah decried ‘red tape’ during an encounter at the office this past summer that landed her on the wrong side of municipal policy. According to a complaint report Besharah had been asking about the timing of the steps needed to have a permit application approved for her new business.
Besharah was found to have violated the municipal code of conduct and appointed a proxy to deal with staff going forward. A code of conduct investigation that cost the town up to an estimated $8,000 recommended no further disciplinary action after Besharah sent a letter of apology to staff for the encounter. Council agreed with the recommendations in October.
Besharah said she felt “isolated, alone, and without support” throughout the costly investigation and had to spend her own money on a lawyer she couldn’t afford. She said she was “gaslit” during a process that she said isn’t clear or reasonable. “You can’t keep saying we’re following the process when you’re getting it wrong so often,” she said.
It was Besharah’s first opportunity to tell her side of a story that has been discussed at length during three consecutive town council meetings, so far.
“I want to say loud and clear that my apology to the staff member stands as genuine as the day it was given. I also want to apologize to that person tonight for what they’ve been dragged through as a result of this process,” Besharah said. “Probably the most important thing that I would like to highlight in this scenario is that the person this complaint centres around did not want to make such a complaint.”
Allegations were made by “people not in the same room as the conversation and only receiving third-hand information about the conversation,” she said. “Since August I have watched this council take a course of action based on misinformation, bad advice, and potentially lies,” Besharah said. “I watched my name and my reputation get smeared and at times it certainly felt intentional… We should all be embarrassed at the outcome of this.”
During the November 9 meeting councillor Viviana Ruiz-Arcand got up from the table in frustration and asked if she could leave. Hordyski also requested a call to order. On Tuesday Fiske said Besharah’s comments were unbecoming of a councillor and questioned whether she was acting in good faith. “The behaviour on November 9 negated any apology,” Fiske said. Fiske accused Besharah of bullying, refusing to listen to other councillors and the mayor when they interjected during her “rant.”
“It was disturbing to see the performance and the lack of respect for each other,” Fiske said. “There’s many people that feel this way so it has to be brought forward.”
Hordyski then read a prepared statement to council calling for Besharah to step down. “I’ve always viewed the council chambers as sacred ground given to us by the community to act on their behalf. What happened at the committee of a whole meeting on November 9 was a breach of that confidence,” Hordyski said. “I hope that the rest of council won’t be judged on the actions of one.”
As a former mayor of La Ronge Hordyski said he felt “frustrated and ashamed” by Besharah’s comments and that he has never witnessed such behaviour in council. He accused Besharah of using “council chambers as a stage” and for having “willfully launched” accusations against the administrator, council, and staff.
“By carrying on with this outburst (Besharah) breached both common law and the code of conduct,” Hordyski said. “I think it comes down to two choices to restore public confidence. First is to ask (Besharah) to resign willfully and the second option is to have her removed from office.”
Besharah told the Daily Herald in a written response that she wants to “work through upset and personal grievances” and move on to “more important work.”
“I respect the right of Joe and Kelly to express their feelings, though obviously I strongly disagree with some of the things they said,” Besharah said. “I’m not interested in attacking them personally, arguing with them publicly, or seeking any elected official’s removal from elected bodies or boards.”
Besharah said neither Hordyski nor Fiske have spoken to her directly about the issue and that she hopes to find some common ground. “I’m sure everyone would like to get to the business of why we were elected,” Besharah said. “I’m trying to focus on the difficult path we have ahead of us. We have a great group of people on council, all of whom bring different qualities, experiences, and approaches.”