Since the November 10th regular meeting in which former Reeve, Louise Nicklen and Division 4 Councilor, Michelle Fox-Waddington, handed in their resignations from the RM of Torch River council, rumours and speculation have run rampant among ratepayers. Little has been said publicly to date as all parties concerned, along with many ratepayers, have attempted to consult lawyers and reach out to agencies such as SARM (Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities) and the Ombudsman.
With no viable timely solution in sight, and feeling that the ratepayers needed to be aware of an abundance of issues and what they believe to be questionable conduct within the RM Council and Administration, Nicklen and Fox-Waddington felt the only way to get the matter the attention it demanded was by resigning. Additionally, the stress had taken a very large toll on both of them. A seat on municipal council can be a high stress position to begin with and their experiences with what they refer to as “bullying and intimidation” along with verbal abuse were just more than they could deal with. Both Nicklen and Fox-Waddington, along with many ratepayers who have heard what they have to say and even witnessed incidents themselves, feel the RM of Torch River Council and Administration’s operating procedures and conduct need to be put under a review by a governing body, such as SARM or the Ministry of Government Relations.
The former Reeve and Councilor, agreed to sit down with a group of concerned ratepayers to clarify the reasons for their resignations. They felt it necessary to emphasize that while the Code of Ethics complaints lodged against former Reeve Louise Nicklen do exist, filed by two of her fellow councilors, neither former Division 4 Councilor Michelle Fox-Waddington nor former Division 5 Councilor Tyler Shymanski had any Code of Ethics complaints against them.
Michelle Fox-Waddington’s Resignation Words Highlight Serious Issues Within the Rural Municipality, it’s Council and Operations
The exact wording of former Councilor Michelle Fox-Waddington’s reason’s for resignation as submitted to the RM of Torch River Administrator and Council are as follows;
– I feel the two Code of Ethics violations filed against Reeve Nicklen, by other council members, are petty and came about because of personal issues not because of RM matters
– I don’t condone the way Councillor Shymanski was spoken to or about by a fellow council member, which caused Councillor Shymanski to resign.
– I believe that resolution #2017 336 was passed without consideration of the number of potential ratepayer livelihoods this could effect all because some council members put their personal feelings above the welfare of the RM.
Expanding on each of her reasons, Michelle explained that her belief that the Code of Ethics violations filed against Nicklen were “petty and came about because of personal issues” based on numerous prior incidents relating to unprofessional conduct as well as conflicts that had arisen over work of other contractors whom had done work recently for the RM. One incident in particular involved a contractor’s completed work on a culvert not passing PDAP inspection. Nicklen was called by the inspector to the site and allegedly subjected to name calling and verbal abuse, including being asked what she was doing there, by a fellow councilor.
Former Reeve Nicklen was not the only council member the target of alleged unprofessional conduct from a fellow council member Fox-Waddington was witness to. In her second reason she refers to a council meeting where Division 5 Councilor Tyler Shymanski was treated in a highly unprofessional manner, soon after which he resigned.
Her third reason for resigning, Resolution #2017 336, which was intended to no longer allow the RM do business with councilors nor with anyone “closely connected” with a councilor, was a grave concern she had that the resolution was unnecessary as existing guidelines, outlined in the Municipal Act, ensured simple steps to avoid a councilor or Reeve from entering into a conflict of interest situation. In her view, the implications of this resolution could have an effect on many contractors that currently reside and do business in the RM because, according to the Municipal Act, closely connected means “agent, business partner, family or employer of a member of council“. The result of such a resolution would mean both Nicklen and Fox-Waddington would have to choose between remaining on Council or resigning so that people “closely connected” to them could continue to provide services and contract with the RM. The implications are farther reaching, in that any candidates for the three vacant seats may, in taking a seat on council, disqualify someone else from doing business with the RM. The resolution has the potential to force the RM to look outside of the community for contractors with no affiliations with any one of the 7 council members, which in turn could results in extensive additional cost to the ratepayers.
Code of Ethics Complaint Not the Cause of Former Reeve Nicklen’s Resignation
In the November 10th, 2017 regular council meeting, the issue of two Code of Ethics complaints, submitted by fellow councilors against former Reeve Nicklen, was addressed in camera by the council members. Upon their return to the regular council meeting, a resolution was passed to address the Code of Ethics complaints and alleged conflict of interest issue by referring it to the RM’s lawyer, followed by a second resolution stating the RM would no longer do business with councilors nor with anyone “closely connected” with a councilor, citing the definition was to be defined by The Municipalities Act.
Louise Nicklen’s adult son has conducted business with the RM, as well as former councilor Michelle Fox Waddington’s husband. As in the established conflict of interest guidelines, it is well recorded in previous council minutes that both Nicklen and Fox-Waddington have followed those guidelines and always declared the conflict of interest and removed themselves from the meeting until all discussions and decisions related to those matters where completed.
Further investigation has shown that, while former Councilor Fox Waddington was in a position of conflict and those steps were required, former Reeve Nicklen may have even been going above and beyond by declaring a conflict of interest, as per the definition of “closely connected” persons in the The Municipal Act.
“Conflict of interest 141.1(1) A member of council has a conflict of interest if the member makes a decision or participates in making a decision in the execution of his or her office and at the same time knows or ought reasonably to know that in the making of the decision there is the opportunity to further his or her private interests or the private interests of a closely connected person.”
While one might assume an adult son is “closely connected“, however, The Municipal Act does not include the adult non-dependent children of the member of council in it’s definitions.
“Interpretation of Part 141 In this Part:
- (a) “closely connected person” means the agent, business partner, family or employer of a member of council;”
- (c) “family” means the spouse and dependent children of a member of council;”
It was the inclusion of “family” in the definitions that prompted former Reeve Nicklen to declare a conflict of interest, however as Nicklen’s son is an adult and not a dependent, a conflict of interest position does not appear to have been created under the definition of family as defined by the Act.
Although the specifics of Code of Ethics complaint documents against Louise Nicklen have not been released publicly, according to Mrs. Nicklen, the complaints are allegedly based on an incident that occurred while the RM of Torch River Administrator, Nathalie Hipkins, was away from the office for an extended time period.
At a regular meeting, a discussion was held in regards to bridge and culvert repairs. As this was an ongoing project, assignment of certain decisions had already been delegated to the Administrator and the PDAP (Provincial Disaster Assistance Program) Coordinator, Darryl Matton, (who also since resigned), in joint to ensure work continued as necessary.
With Administrator Hipkins planning to leave immediately following the meeting for an extended time period, PDAP Co-ordinator Darryl Matton approached council and asked who he should contact in the Administrator’s absence, should any decisions need to be made regarding the PDAP projects. The administrator and other council members clearly stated that he was to contact the Reeve, Louise Nicklen, as she was to assume the administrator’s function in those decisions in her absence.
According to Nicklen, a situation arose where a bridge had previously failed south of Garrick, and the RM staff required the services of a contractor on short notice. The work necessary was small but needed to get done promptly to prevent further damage and potential liability issues for the RM. Nicklen attended a site, along with the PDAP Co-ordinator, and the RM Superintendent, Murray Black. Nicklen had been informed that the PDAP representative made it very clear the risk of movement by the bridge could cause damage to both the site and the river, which in turn would not be covered under the Provincial Disaster Assistance funding and had the potential to create high liability and cost for the RM of Torch River.
The situation was in Division 4, so Mrs. Nicklen contacted that division councilor, Clarissa Schmidt to assist in the decision process. When Councilor Schmidt failed to attend the site, Nicklen made a judgement call and, in agreeance with the PDAP Co-ordinator, approved hiring two contractors to come in and assist the RM employees with equipment the RM did not have.
The potential conflict comes in because one of the two contractors was her adult son, however given the potential for further damage and the failure of Councilor Schmidt to respond promptly to the request to attend to the situation, Nicklen felt that she was doing was in the best interest of the RM and the ratepayers. She felt her actions were necessary to prevent extensive damage and high costs for the ratepayers.
Since these allegations have come to light, numerous ratepayers say they have made complaints to SARM, and the Ombudsman with little success. One ratepayer who chose to attend a regular council meeting to observe even claimed to have been questioned by a councilor as to his reason for being there and made to feel very unwelcome at the meeting. Even those who have attended to observe or as delegations have stated they get the impression they are not welcome to remain for the rest of the council meeting when the delegation has completed their presentation to council. While none of those people where specifically asked to leave, their perception of being unwelcome was rooted in what they perceived to be intimidating looks and body language from a council member.
As of the time publication, the Administrator of the RM of Torch River could not be reached. This article will be updated upon receipt of any official statement from the RM of Torch River Council or Administrator.
Anyone is free to attend the meetings of the council to observe. Delegations can speak to council but must book with the Administrator one week in advance.
The next regular council meeting is on Friday, December 8th at the council chambers in the RM of Torch River Office in White Fox, beginning at 9:00 am.
A special meeting for discussion of the Capital Plan Budget and the 2018 Operating Budget is set for Monday December 4th at 8:30 am.