Northern Village of Buffalo Narrows Mayor Robert Woods and former chief administrative officer Ash Alam gave conflicting accounts of how a bylaw prohibiting people with criminal records from running in municipal elections came to pass.
Justice Gary Meschishnick quashed the bylaw on Thursday at the Battleford Court of Queen's Bench in a ruling that also invalidated Nov. 9 elections and ordered that a new one take place on Mar. 24.
The bylaw also prevented people with accounts in arrears from running. It was challenged by former mayoral hopeful Sandra Ericson and Darlene Petit, who had wanted to run for the village council.
Mayor Woods said that he agrees with the verdict but wishes it could have been avoided in the first place. He said he planned to reverse the previous council’s decision to pass the bylaw after receiving legal advice, two weeks prior to the verdict, that it contravened guidelines laid out in the Northern Municipalities Act.
“For Buffalo Narrows I think it’s a lesson learned. But a costly one because they took it through the court system,” Woods said.
Woods said the village must pay half the costs of $7,500 that was awarded to the applicants.
Although Woods had resigned from his position as mayor before the bylaw was passed last summer, he said that he ran again in November because former mayor Melanie Aubichon and her council were “inexperienced” and things were getting out of control.
“I had resigned because of my differences with council and because of procedures that they weren't really willing to follow. But I ran this last election and I got in again,” Woods said.
Woods said that as chief administrative officer (CAO) at the time, Ash Alam should have been aware that the bylaw wasn’t legal and told the village council.
“The previous mayor and council decided that they wanted to put in a bylaw that disqualifies certain people from running… and they just continued to pursue it,” Woods said.
“The other council said they didn’t get it either from our CAO of the day, and we didn't know anything about it until I talked to lawyers. So they sent me the information and we just put a close to it,” Woods said.
Alam, who now works as CAO for Battleford said he doesn't disagree with the ruling, but the bylaw was ultimately up to the village council. He said he had “no opinion” on the decision at the time.
He also said the Ministry of Government Relations, which administers the Northern Municipalities Act, didn’t oppose the bylaw then, either.
“Government Relations was aware and they did not challenge that at the time. They had the right to challenge it when it was happening. They didn't do that, they let that happen,” Alam said.
“(But) what the province thinks is correct, is correct. Rules and regulations are in place for a reason. I'm not against any rules and regulation at all. Ever.”
Ministry of Government Relations spokesperson Shaylyn McMahon said in a written response that the province “respects the autonomy of democratically elected municipal governments.”
“Municipalities are responsible for developing municipal bylaws. Citizens have the right to challenge these bylaws in provincial courts, which is what happened in this case,” McMahon said.
“A person can only be disqualified from running for office if the disqualification is addressed in provincial legislation. The Local Government Elections Act, 2015 and The Northern Municipalities Act, 2010 do not include the payment of taxes or utilities, or the existence of a criminal record, as a basis for disqualification.”
She said Government Relations “will continue supporting the administration of Buffalo Narrows” in holding a new election on March 24.
Alam said Woods is wrong to blame the former mayor and council for the bylaw, and was in favour of it previously.
Woods did pass a bylaw requiring criminal record checks and disclosure for municipal elections candidates, but it didn’t block them from running.
Alam said Mayor Aubichon “had nothing to do” with the bylaw, that there was public support and pressure from the village council for the move at the time.
“It was what people wanted. And then the current mayor, Bobby Woods, was aware of that — all aware of that. And he was in favour of that — totally in favour of that. Everybody knows that,” Alam said.
He accused the mayor of playing a “blame game” and not taking responsibility for a process that he set in motion.
“To put it very nicely, they don't do anything legally anyway. The previous mayor and I had nothing to do with those kinds of things,” Alam said.
Alam, who is of South Asian origin, also accused the mayor of discrimination and quoted Woods as saying that he would ‘not hire another immigrant.’
Alam said that he left of his own accord about three months before the most recent election and hired a replacement who was dismissed soon after.
Woods said Alam was hired to make sure the municipality followed procedure and simply failed that job. He said the replacement didn’t have enough experience.
“I'm not racist, and I'm not judgmental on this. If they had the qualifications, and the experience and the knowledge of what they're coming into then it's okay, because I think they'd be more successful,” Woods said.
Buffalo Narrows is currently without a CAO, which Woods said is because it’s difficult to find qualified applicants who understand northern communities.
“The difficulty with hiring administration for our northern municipalities is that very few people want to take the position. And there are very few people trained in our northern communities,” Woods said.
Woods said that he would like to be able to hire locally to fill the “administrative deficit.”
He hopes to train someone out of northern Saskatchewan, who would be committed to the job and happy living in Buffalo Narrows.
He said that getting his community up to date on its accounting and in line with the Northern Municipalities Act is his first priority, but that will take time and the village council needs to be diligent.
“It's a little bit difficult right now, because the ones that are on there now know the story from the previous council. They're all gung ho about correcting things. But the thing is, they want to do it overnight,” Woods said.
“But we’ve got to have legal advice on it, we’ve got to make sure that everything's in the right place. We’ve got to have factual information before we can even move on things.”
Michael Bramadat-Willcock, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Northern Advocate