'Live controversy': Court hears arguments in St. Andrews mayor's bid for judicial review

A majority of council members in the R.M. of St. Andrews, Man., voted to strip Mayor Joy Sul (pictured) of a large portion of her power and authority as mayor during a special council meeting on Dec. 16, 2019. (Source: Danton Unger/ CTV News Winnipeg)

More than a year after the R.M. of St. Andrew's mayor was stripped of certain duties, a Manitoba court heard arguments in the bid for a judicial review of council's decision, but the rural municipality's lawyer argued new evidence may render the entire application moot.

During a special meeting on Dec. 16, 2019, a majority of council voted to remove Mayor Joy Sul as chairperson and spokesperson for the rural municipality. Councillor John Preun was named as the chair and spokesperson.

READ MORE: 'This is unprecedented': St. Andrews Mayor stripped of power at packed special council meeting 

"If the councillors are taking away I would say the powers or the duty of the head of council—they are essentially stripping the head of council (of) all the power of that office," Norman Boudreau, the lawyer representing Sul, argued during a virtual hearing in Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench on Wednesday.

"They are taking away her ability to chair, and they are taking away her ability to be the spokesperson for the municipality—therefore they are stripping away completely that office."

Coun. Preun and the R.M. of St. Andrews are named as respondents in the application for a judicial review launched by Sul following the vote.

In her arguments, Bernice Bowley, the lawyer representing the respondents, pointed to Manitoba's Municipal Act.

She said the act states the head of council has a duty to preside over council meetings unless the procedural bylaws, municipal act or another act otherwise provide. She said there is no specific authority in the municipal act regarding a municipal spokesperson.

ST. ANDREWS LAWYER ARGUES NEW EVIDENCE MAKES APPLICATION MOOT

At the beginning of the hearing on Wednesday, Justice Victor Toews accepted new evidence which Bowley argued makes the application for a judicial review moot.

She said the new evidence—an affidavit from St. Andrews CAO DJ Sigmundson—outlines new procedural bylaws that were passed in January 2021, replacing the R.M.'s former bylaw regarding the appointment of a new chairperson other than the mayor.

Bowley said Sigmundson's affidavit also points out an informal agreement from some councillors delegating the responsibility of spokesperson to various people, including the mayor, on a case-by-case basis.

Bowley said the old procedures bylaws and resolutions regarding the appointment of a chairperson no longer exist.

"There is no meaningful controversy about them anymore," Bowley argued.

"Time marches on, circumstances changes, political will changes, and council has a right to update or improve its internal governance procedures."

However, Boudreau argued there is still a "live controversy."

"Mayor Sul is still mayor and continues to have her abilities and duties impeded by the actions of the councillors," Boudreau said.

He argued the new procedural bylaws passed in January 2021 essentially have the same effect as the former bylaws.

"This is ludicrous," he said. "The respondents should not be allowed to evade the scrutiny of the court just because they are able to pass another bylaw."

Bowley argued the purpose of the application for a judicial review is not designed to punish the current members of council, and is only to look at the legality of the municipal enactments.

The arguments are scheduled to continue virtually in Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench on Thursday.