Fighting like 'Hatfields and McCoys' — here's what led to the resignation of a southern Alberta council

·7 min read
The village of Empress is divided between two camps after the resignation of its council, made worse by the fact that some residents hold hard feelings that trace back years. (Submitted by Bruce A. Johnson - image credit)
The village of Empress is divided between two camps after the resignation of its council, made worse by the fact that some residents hold hard feelings that trace back years. (Submitted by Bruce A. Johnson - image credit)

The southern Alberta village of Empress hugs the Saskatchewan border.

Located between two rivers northeast of Medicine Hat, the prairie community of about 100 souls is home to a group of artisans and serves as a central hub to the surrounding ranching and farming community.

But residents say the village is divided in the wake of the resignation of the village's council in recent days — fighting like "Hatfields and McCoys," as one resident put it.

"The town is very badly split," said Steve Springett, owner of the Empress Forksview apartment building and motel.

"It's like us and the Liberals and Conservatives — we just kind of go back and forth. Or like the Americans. You know? There's kind of two sides here."

The chief administrative officer

The village lost its chief administrative officer, Debbie Ross, earlier this year, after she had served in that role for nearly a decade. She said she resigned after reaching a breaking point trying to deal with village council.

The trouble began, according to Ross, when she fired the village's public works foreman, Martin Jarvis, who she claimed was not properly following the bylaws and policies that council made.

"That didn't go over well," Ross said. "So he actually campaigned and ran in the new election … and he ran on the campaign of getting rid of me."

In late 2021, Jarvis was successful in becoming mayor, running in tandem with Dan Moslamani, who became deputy mayor. Clinton Steinley rounded out the three-person council.

Ross claimed the pair proceeded to "try and make my life miserable."

"Lots of accusations," Ross said. "I'd have to show him the [Municipal Government Act], show him what he could or could not do, and it just got to the point where I didn't want to bother with it anymore."

Submitted by Debbie Ross
Submitted by Debbie Ross

Ross said she found herself at a breaking point when she said Jarvis came in one day with a letter and a member of the RCMP, intending to fire Ross.

"Of course, he doesn't have the authority. The only one who confirmed me is council as a whole," Ross said.

"He said that one of the other councillors [Moslamani] was in agreement with this. And that other councillor said he absolutely did not agree with that after the fact."

RCMP spokesperson Gina Slaney said police were asked to attend to keep the peace, adding that there was nothing criminal involved.

Ross said her frustrations came down to what she saw as a "lack of understanding."

"Or it's a lack of wanting to understand what the rules are and how to operate as a council or a counselor," Ross said.

The mayor

"It didn't work out," said Jarvis, about his time on council. "I really wanted to do good for the town."

The former mayor said he ran his campaign based on being a "voice for the people." He said he never ran explicitly on a campaign of getting rid of Ross.

"They say I ran to get rid of her. But if I ran to get rid of her, I got a majority of the vote. So if that's what is true, then what's that tell you?" he said.

He said that he may have made a few mistakes here and there during his time as public works foreman but always gave "120 per cent," even helping people at night on his own time.

So, he said there was some bitterness between the two in the period after his firing. But Jarvis claimed his campaign was based only on questions he was hearing from the community.

"If people had a question, I was going to ask it. And I wasn't scared to ask it," he said. "And, yeah, we should be able to ask the questions … she's got to have oversight."

Village of Empress website
Village of Empress website

When it came to the incident with the RCMP officer and the letter, Jarvis said he received some really bad advice from a businessman.

"I was stupid. I'm really frustrated that I did that. But anyways, she set me straight," he said, adding he apologized to Ross later.

Jarvis said he hoped to work things out with Ross after that. He said he realized Ross was good at what she did.

"I said, 'I want to work with you. You're brilliant.' And so I really thought we were on the same page," he said. "But anyway, it didn't work out."

The deputy mayor

After Ross resigned on Feb. 17, she was hired by the Town of Oyen, Alta., to serve as that community's CAO.

Almost a week later, a council meeting was held to determine next steps for Empress.

Springett, the motel owner, attended that meeting, and said residents at the meeting were "very vocal and really disrespectful … calling [council] liars."

He said the mayor and the deputy mayor didn't seem to be on the same page, and seemed "very inexperienced."

Nearly two months later, Coun. Clint Steinley resigned. He did not respond to a request for an interview.

Submitted by Bruce A. Johnson
Submitted by Bruce A. Johnson

The trouble seemed to mount for the remaining council after that.

On April 20, the village's e-mail account was hacked, unrelated to what had been occurring with council. Spammers sent out e-mails from the village account, prompting the village to warn residents to watch for phishing-style emails.

Speaking over the phone on April 28, Moslamani said he had no choice but to resign given the direction of council and the contention currently being felt in the community.

"I'm not going to live forever. I'm going to face God one day. And I have to answer to him," he said.

"So I know some people, they're gonna come after me now. But do you think I care? They're not God."

A village divided

Jarvis said the contentious February council meeting was difficult. He said he "took the lumps, took the abuse."

Because it was a public forum, he let residents speak their mind — some in support, some opposed to what had unfolded.

Looking back, Jarvis said he wished he had talked more with Ross, to bridge their relationship.

"You've got to really trust your CAO that you have in place," he said.

Part of the problem, Jarvis said, was the ongoing feud in the community that has divided the village into two groups for years, unrelated to the incidents on council.

"I think it's different families. Different hurts. Hurt people hurt people, I guess that's it," he said. "There's been feuds between families, and people hurt people way back, and not coming to grips with it, and not willing to start over."

Jarvis and Moslamani resigned as of April 26, with the latter citing the pressures of mounting stress.

"I just couldn't take it," Moslamani said. "My doctor confronted me, he said, 'you have to quit, your blood pressure is overboard.'"

Jarvis said his hope for the next council would be for it to mend wounds.

Submitted by Bruce A. Johnson
Submitted by Bruce A. Johnson

A spokesperson for Alberta's minister of municipal affairs wrote in an email that they had been made aware of the loss of quorum for the municipality and would move to appoint an official administrator.

That administrator will be able to assist with governance and ensure there are no disruptions to service delivery until quorum on council can be re-established.

I'd like to start over, but I don't think we can. - Martin Jarvis, former Empress mayor

In the meantime, the village of Empress will need to contend with splits amongst community members, some of which have been exacerbated by anxieties tied to the pandemic and downtrends in rural economies.

"People are worried about the economy coming back," said Springett. "We're in an area of oil and gas, mostly gas. The towns around us have been prosperous. But the little town here has not."

Jarvis said he wishes Ross the best. He said he would like to have her back in the community.

"I'd like to start over, but I don't think we can," he said. "I wish I had the answers to why people want to be like that and not get along. I'm just as bad, I guess. I was part of that.

"Looking back, I wish I would have done more. But I can't undo it."

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