Council votes to send conflict of interest dispute to Court of King’s Bench

Prince Albert City Hall. – Herald file photo

Two councillors at the centre of a conflict of interest dispute should have their hand slapped, but should not be kicked off council.

That was the general sentiment at Monday’s city council meeting where council voted 5-1 in favour of having a Court of King’s Bench judge rule on whether Couns. Tony Head and Terra Lennox-Zepp violated Conflict of Interest rules during debates, discussions, and votes on the City’s collective bargaining agreement with CUPE 882.

“I don’t necessarily want to see them removed from the chair, but I want a line drawn,” said Blake Edwards, the most vocal councillor during Monday’s debate. “It’s very uncomfortable when you have members of the public come to you … saying, ‘how can two councillors who have some connection to CUPE—and there’s the understanding or perception of conflict of interest—how can they participate in these discussions, in particular for collective bargaining, and other information that we may deal with? It puts us in a difficult situation.”

Edwards, along with Couns. Don Cody, Darren Solomon, and Charlene Miller all said the situation was a difficult one. Both Cody and Solomon said they didn’t want Head or Lennox-Zepp removed from council, but also said doing nothing would be inappropriate.

Despite those concerns, Cody voted against the motion from Mayor Greg Dionne that will send the matter to the Court of King’s Bench. Cody said he was unhappy with language from the Cities Act that was included in the motion.

That wording called on the courts to determine if Lennox-Zepp and Head have ceased to be qualified to remain as members of council. Cody said the wording was “a bit on the harsh side” during Monday’s meeting.

“I don’t think any of us in this assembly or anyone in this administration wants those two members left (out) from this assembly,” Cody said. “I think that’s the last thing that we want…. Do we want to have them get a little slap on the hand for something they may have done inadvertently or by mistake? Yes, we do. Yes, we do, and I think we need to do that, but what I have the biggest rub here is really Section 121(2) of the Cities Act.”

Solomon voted in favour of the motion. He told council many residents have contacted him to discuss the issue, and those discussions show the public expected City Council to make a ruling.

“As a councillor I’m responsible for my actions, as are they,” Solomon said during the meeting. “Did they make a mistake? Possibly, however I’m not a legal expert. When I interpret the Act and look at the consequences, I also agree our options aren’t good.

“Realistically, I do think it has to be referred,” he added.

Miller said it was a difficult situation for council because there were two different legal opinions: the one council received from law firm Brownlee LLP, and another received by Lennox-Zepp.

Miller said she received one letter, a couple of emails, and no calls about the case. However, she said the City should go to the courts because of the conflicting legal opinions.

City solicitor Mitch Holash said the option to disqualify councillors for not excusing themselves due to a conflict of interest is intended to “put teeth” into the standards imposed by The Cities Act. He also told council the judge has a wide-array of options available if the matter does go to court.

The judge can confirm the councillors are disqualified, dismiss the application entirely, or rule that it was an inadvertent or honest mistake.

During questioning, Holash said the City had received a letter from Lennox-Zepp’s legal representative outlining why she was not in conflict of interest. He also said the City Clerk has spoken to both councillors about CUPE collective bargaining. Holash said it was his understanding that Lennox-Zepp had indicated she would remove herself from all CUPE 882 agenda items that come before council, and that Head would remove himself from all CUPE bargaining matters that come before council.

Mayor Greg Dionne read a prepared statement to council outlining why he wanted the matter sent to a judge. Dionne said conflict of interest allegations impacted council’s integrity. He said council has a legal responsibility to make sure the public trusts council to put the City’s business before their own.

“A member of council cannot serve two masters,” Dionne said. “When a conflict exists, they must excuse themselves from the discussion … (and) making and having any potential of influencing the decision or discussion.

“Council has the legal obligation and ethical responsibility to ensure the governance policies and councillors follow the oath of office is upheld. In order to protect the integrity of council in the process, the public confidence in council, we are requesting that the courts review the facts and determine what needs to be our next step in legislation.”

Dionne added that the City was taking this action because of a letter from a resident. The letter was included in Monday’s agenda package. Prior to the debate, council approved a motion allowing Holash to respond in writing.

The Daily Herald attempted to contact both Head and Lennox-Zepp by phone, but were unsuccessful.

Lennox-Zepp’s husband, Craig Thebaud, is listed as a staff advisor for Region 2 of the Prince Albert CUPE area office on the CUPE Healthcare Workers Local 5430 web page. Thebaud has been assigned to work with CUPE 882 in the past. At a December meeting, Lennox-Zepp said was not currently a member of the CUPE team negotiating with the City of Prince Albert.

Head spent nine years as a former CUPE national representative before being elected to council. Prior to that, he worked for the City of Prince Albert in the collections and distribution department.

CUPE 882 represents the City of Prince Albert’s inside workers. That includes employees at the Art Hauser Centre, Alfred Jenkins Field House, and E.A. Rawlinson Centre.

Council voted to ratify the new collective agreement with CUPE 882 on Dec. 11, 2023.