Summerside city council issued a public statement Monday night, responding for the first time to a situation they say was embarrassing.
In July, CBC News reported the Dixie Lee restaurant in downtown Summerside owed the city's electric utility more than $40,000 and another $1,300 for water and sewer charges.
The business is jointly owned by Summerside Mayor Basil Stewart and his son, Major.
"The circumstances currently being confronted by city council are both unique and embarrassing," said Coun. Brian McFeely.
McFeely said that it is critically important that all owing amounts on utility bills be consistently addressed, and that method protects the privacy of the account holder, but allows the city to collect on its past due accounts.
Council's unanimous statement, read at Monday night's council meeting, asked the mayor to issue a public apology.
"I will personally apologize that this council had to deal with this situation," said Stewart.
"But, I didn't do anything wrong, I will take that to the grave with me."
Stewart said the issue arose from a misunderstanding between the business and the city, and made a point to say he didn't use his power to get special treatment for the business.
"I didn't ask for any favours. I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't ask for any favours from the city," he said.
In July, Major Stewart told CBC News his father has not been involved in the daily operation of the business or the discussions on the outstanding bill.
Major said there was a dispute over the electric bill shortly after the restaurant opened in the fall of 2017. He said he dug in his heels and refused to pay. But had since agreed to pay the outstanding bill.
Council's statement contained five other points, in addition to the request for the mayor's apology.
- Council will take steps to amend the city's code of conduct policy so that if any member of council or senior staff are in arrears, they will be suspended until the account is paid in full.
- Council will amend the city's collection policy to require reporting of the total of all arrears over 90 days, and the efforts in collecting those debts will also be reported.
- Council has determined the city's code of conduct policy does not provide adequate consequence as it relates the protection of private information. Council will immediately require all staff who are privileged to that kind of information to sign confidentiality agreements.
- Council will work closely with the provincial privacy commissioner to conduct an inquiry into how the information was released.
- Council will review its communication protocol to review what, and how information is released to the public and the media.
Coun. Justin Doiron said he'd also like to see some sort of a whistleblower policy adopted by city hall.
"This situation, quite possibly, wouldn't have come to light, had it not been for someone saying something," he said.
'I'm a little bit disappointed in the apology'
Councillors said the situation put them all in an awkward situation with residents.
"It's taken up so much of council's time that we should have been working with our residents. And that's the part that really bothers me," said Coun. Carrie Adams. "It put everybody in a really awkward situation in this building."
"It's been a very trying time, and I don't lose a whole lot of sleep over much. But I did over this one," said Coun. Bruce MacDougall.
"I think I need to be very honest, very forthcoming," said Coun. Cory Snow. "I'm a little bit disappointed in the apology ... I wish the apology would have had more merit and more meaning to it."
"It's a tough situation that we've been in for the last while," said Coun. Barb Ramsay. "I guess the mayor said what he felt he needed to say."
'We've done the due diligence'
With the public statement and apology, Deputy Mayor Norma McColeman is hoping council can move past the issue. Both McColeman and Stewart said that Dixie Lee's bill has been mostly paid.
"I hopefully believe that tonight we have come to the other side of it because council really wants to get on and do the work," she said.
"The residents will be the ultimate deciding factor. We know that we've done the due diligence. We know as a council fully that we have worked very hard to bring all of those pieces of information together."
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