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Mayor, councillors locked in war of words, lawsuit over inclusion of homelessness motion in Regina budget

A file photo shows members of City of Regina administration watching a council meeting. An  argument over whether administration was obligated to include a motion about ending homelessness in the city's preliminary budget has sparked a lawsuit filed by Coun. Dan LeBlanc. (Kirk Fraser/CBC - image credit)
A file photo shows members of City of Regina administration watching a council meeting. An argument over whether administration was obligated to include a motion about ending homelessness in the city's preliminary budget has sparked a lawsuit filed by Coun. Dan LeBlanc. (Kirk Fraser/CBC - image credit)

Regina city council descended into a series of heated press conferences on Wednesday as a dispute over what should have been included in the city's recommended budget is set to head to court next week.

Coun. Dan LeBlanc, who is a lawyer, has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Coun. Andrew Stevens and Florence Stratton, a well-known social activist in Regina.

They allege that the city's unelected administration has purposely subverted the will of the democratically elected council it is supposed to follow.

At the heart of the matter is a motion to end homelessness in Regina.

The argument is over whether city administration was obligated to include the motion and its financial implications in the preliminary budget it is recommending to the council, or if it had the freedom to leave it out.

Alexander Quon/CBC
Alexander Quon/CBC

The lawsuit filed with the Court of Queen's Bench seeks a judicial order directing Niki Anderson, who recently became Regina's city manager, to include an estimated $24.9 million in the proposed budget to end homelessness.

"The unelected city manager has effectively insulated elected leaders from having to publicly state their position on homelessness," LeBlanc said during a press conference on Wednesday.

LeBlanc says the lawsuit's $24.9 million figure is based on what councillors were told in preliminary estimates.

The lawsuit was not welcomed by Mayor Sandra Masters.

During a scrum after council's Wednesday meeting, she said she had yet to receive legal advice on the matter.

Her view as mayor is that it's now a matter for the courts, she said, but added "if you're asking me personally, I think it's disgusting," saying she's not impressed Anderson is targeted in the lawsuit.

"I think that for a first female city manager, there's tones of sexism in it."

How Regina got here

The dispute goes back to a June 15 motion that directed city administration to include "full operational funding to solve homelessness throughout the city," which should be "clearly demarcated in a line item of its own" in the city's proposed 2023 budget, according to meeting minutes published on the city's website.

The motion, which passed unanimously, also directed city administration to produce a report explaining the costing, along with detailing the estimated number of homeless people in Regina and the cost of inaction on the subject.

All of the details specified in the motion were laid out in the preliminary budget released to the public earlier this week, but there was no recommendation from administration that the city proceed on the motion.

City administration said the city's mill rate  — which determines the tax per dollar of a property's assessed value, expressed in "mills" — would need to increase by 21.7 per cent in 2023 and another 4.24 per cent in 2024 to cover the estimated $122.5 million needed to implement a housing-first model to address homelessness.

The increase would translate to an average of $40.59 per month ($487.08 annually) per homeowner in 2023 and $11.90 per month ($142.80 annually) in 2024.

City administration said a recommendation to move forward wasn't included in the preliminary budget because of the high cost of the project.

Alexander Quon/CBC
Alexander Quon/CBC

LeBlanc says the plain reading of the motion makes it clear the funding should have been included in the preliminary budget for council to consider.

"It doesn't say, 'we'll think about whether to include.' It says, 'You will put that money in and then we, the elected people, will debate it later,'" he said.

LeBlanc said with limited choices available to force the issue, he and Stevens felt that a lawsuit was their only recourse.

Stevens was the councillor who moved the original motion and Stratton is a Regina resident. Using both as the applicants in the lawsuit means all legal bases are covered, LeBlanc said.

Other councillors were not consulted ahead of the lawsuit being filed.

Legal battle heats up

Having the motion in the budget would require councillors to publicly vote in order to remove the funding, thereby forcing them to take a stance on addressing homelessness, LeBlanc said.

"This backroom, undemocratic removal of it from the budget removes that accountability and gives me and others an out to say, 'I don't have to address this publicly because an unelected person took it off in a backroom,'" he said.

The two sides will meet on Nov. 29 at 10 a.m. at Court of King's Bench, as LeBlanc wants a court decision before council is set to debate the city's budget on Dec. 14.

Stevens and Stratton filed sworn affidavits accompanying the legal filing.

As of Wednesday night, Anderson and the City of Regina had yet to issue a response to the lawsuit.

The Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry and Rally Around Homelessness, two organizations dedicated to stopping poverty, have indicated they support the legal battle.

Kirk Fraser/CBC
Kirk Fraser/CBC

But Masters said she rejected the concept of the lawsuit, and that council cannot mandate what administration recommends.

Masters, who normally answers every question put to her after council meetings, answered inquiries from media for approximately 15 minutes Wednesday before abruptly announcing that she was done.

She had parting words for those looking to go after the city manager, saying Anderson was already being harassed.

"The public is blowing up her email right now and wanting her personal address and her personal cellphone numbers, because they think she's a horrible human being right now.

"So, well done, everyone."