N.L. Supreme Court rules town in conflict of interest over Witless Bay beach road development

·3 min read
The attempted development of Ragged Beach in Witless Bay led some residents to fight in court to protect public land.  (Meg Roberts/CBC - image credit)
The attempted development of Ragged Beach in Witless Bay led some residents to fight in court to protect public land. (Meg Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Meg Roberts/CBC
Meg Roberts/CBC

The fight in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador is over, and a group in Witless Bay is rejoicing over the decision to protect a piece of public land from potential development.

The conflict between the Friends of Ragged Beach group and the town council has been ongoing for 12 years. On Tuesday, the group received the outcome it had hoped for.

Lawyer Michael Crosbie, who represented the group, told CBC Radio's On The Go the court ruled Tuesday the Town of Witless Bay was in a conflict of interest when it voted to develop a public road, which is currently a "fishermen's path," across the beach. The path leads to land owned by the brother of Deputy Mayor Maureen Murphy.

Murphy voted in the council decision to move ahead with the development after work was halted, when citizens made their case to an appeals board over Murphy's brother wanting to develop the road, said Crosbie.

A private citizen cannot develop a public road, he said.

"Subsequently the town council decided, 'Well, we can do the road work, so we'll do it,'" he said.

"That's fine if you accept that this is a public road. The judge accepted that this is a public road."

Meg Roberts/CBC
Meg Roberts/CBC

Crosbie said the group sought his advice when wondering how to make an appeal to the court system.

He said Tuesday's ruling, found in favour of the citizen's group, was an issue of a conflict of interest because Murphy didn't recuse herself from the vote on road work that would be benefiting her brother.

"The principle of law and conflict of interest and bias is basically grounded in the idea that no one should be judged in their own cause, or essentially something they have an interest in," said Crosbie.

"The problem here was the deputy mayor voted to do this when it was involving her brother."

But things got even more complicated.

Crosbie said a section in the legislation allows a town councillor to ask the rest of council whether or not they are in conflict of interest, and can participate in the decision if granted.

"They went, 'Yeah, you're not in a conflict of interest,' to which I go, 'This doesn't make any sense,'" he said, adding the situation would have been different if the vote was over filling a pothole.

"Here they were voting on doing $5,000 or $6,000 worth of work to benefit really one property."

Crosbie said the judge agreed council's decision for road development work was tainted by conflict of interest.

However, the struggle may not be over.

"It sets up an interesting question as to whether council can deal with this matter again. And indeed they can do so, but the Supreme Court of Canada case law says that it shouldn't be the same group of people because now they're tainted," he said.

"I think this cannot come back again until after the election. After the election the public has had a chance to say what they think of this and elect councillors. They can elect the same councillors if they're happy with this kind of decision making, or new councillors if they're unhappy."

The Town of Witless Bay did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News.

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