Judson blocks in-camera council session

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

Coun. Douglas Judson blocked an in-camera council session from proceeding on Sept. 17. This special meeting was called by Fort Frances Mayor June Caul on Sept. 14.

The meeting had one in-camera item titled “litigation or potential litigation, including matters before administrative tribunals, affecting the municipality or local board; pending civil matter.”

This was Judson’s turn to chair the Committee of the Whole meeting, since Coun. John McTaggart was away during the meeting.

Judson wrote a 7-page procedural decision, in which he expressed concerns relating to items 1.2, being the disclosure of pecuniary interest and the general nature thereof and, 2.1, being the in-camera session.

He said there are reasons which support his conclusion to prevent this session from moving forward, the first one being lack of information before council for any consideration of the preliminary questions of pecuniary interest and whether to move into a closed session.

Judson added that there is both insufficient narrative on the face of the agenda and no material is appended to the closed version of the agenda package to allow members of council to appropriately assess whether they had interests to declare, or whether the subject matter of the proposed closed session was appropriate for in-camera discussion.

“It is not evident from the agenda that the subject matter is litigation or, if it is litigation, that it is litigation engaging the municipality or just the mayor,” Judson said. “If the matter is litigation and does relate to the municipality, it should be brought forward to us by a representative of the administration, with a recommendation on behalf of the corporation.”

Judson said the second reason is that they could not proceed without an individual who can inform council on the item of business.

“I am aware of no person who could brief council on the item of business that is proposed,” he added.

Judson also cited an email sent by the mayor to council, adding that the email is not a privileged record of the municipality and does not form part of the closed meeting package. In the email, the mayor said “This message is to inform all of council that the special meeting has been called by me on the advice of my legal team regarding the coverage of legal fees by the Town of Fort Frances in case any part of those fees should not be covered by the Town’s Insurance provider. It was suggested that I ask for this special council meeting as soon as possible.”

Judson said the email describes the mayor’s legal team – not council’s – with no further details or any explanation as to urgency, adding that Caul is unable to address council in closed session because it is clear from her email that she has a pecuniary interest in the item as she is seeking protection from the municipality.

Judson added they cannot proceed with this item as a result of the waiver of privilege concerns it raises.

“Lawyers acting for the mayor are acting in her interest – she describes them as “my legal team,” Judson said. “The mayor’s interest is not synonymous with the interest of council or the municipality. Lawyers for an individual member of Council cannot advise council, as council is not their client.”

At the meeting, Caul said she was prepared to declare conflict during the in-camera session, adding that she is not the evil person who would try to throw something out to get over council’s heads.

“Council needed to be aware that there will be town fines possibly being used in a process that I’m involved in and that Mr. Judson has also been involved in,” Caul said. “My lawyer, Tim Harmer, urged me to have a special council meeting where council could have input as to whether or not town funds should or could be used for this proceeding that I’m having to be involved with.”

Coun. Wendy Brunetta expressed her confusion, saying that since both Judson and Caul are involved in this matter, they have enough information to know whether they would declare a conflict or not.

However, Judson said interests are declared based on the agenda, which he said did not have sufficient appended information regarding the nature of the item.

“There was no specificity on the agenda,” Judson said. “And so there was no ability for anyone to declare a conflict, and no one did declare conflict this morning. There’s no requirement for me as chair to read tea leaves, I read the agenda.”

Councillors Mike Behan and Rick Wiedenhoeft said while Judson has raised some significant concerns that ought to be addressed, they will support Caul because she acted in good faith and therefore should be protected.

In the end, council decided to go through with what Judson called a more compliant process where this item is received, council directs administration to inform them and then they would be better equipped to have a closed session discussion.