Council’s Monday meeting opened directly into controversy as the mayor issued a statement that rebuked Coun. Laurie Charlton for publicly accusing the CAO Victor Kumar of libel on Feb. 14. The drama ended with Charlton’s expulsion from the council chamber.
The mayor’s statement noted that the CAO could sue for $250,000 or more, plus legal fees, at taxpayer expense for breach of contract, and recommended that Charlton either apologize, or that council censure Charlton’s comments publicly.
In the course of discussion, Charlton reiterated his accusations of libel, prompting the mayor to demand an immediate apology under threat of expulsion. (For background on the libel accusation and the dispute between Charlton and Kumar, see this previous Rossland News story.)
When Charlton refused to apologize, the RCMP were called and, after some resistance — notably the threat of arrest by the attending officer — Charlton left the room.
Mayor Greg Granstrom’s statement noted that staff have a responsibility to give their “best professional advice, without considering whether it might be popular or unpopular.”
He continued that council members should “raise valid concerns about the performance” of staff. “However, such concerns must be properly aired and handled by council.”
The thrust of the mayor’s point was that Charlton’s choice to drop a notice of motion on council which contained accusations of libel pointed at the CAO was unethical, “equivalent to trying [to defame] him without due process.”
According to the mayor, due process for issues of staff begins “behind closed doors,” in an in-camera meeting.
Granstrom noted that staff who “feel bullied, intimidated, harassed, and defamed” may resort to legal action, lacking the privilege of public debate.
He also wrote, “Mr. Kumar does not wish Rossland taxpayers to suffer any financial loss as a result of this very serious incident. The city and the taxpayers of Rossland are facing a precarious position.”
At the meeting, Coun. Kathy Moore summarized the intention of the mayor’s motion that “these problems are handled outside the public sphere until we know there’s something to bring up.”
Coun. Kathy Wallace said, “If Coun. Charlton would voluntarily withdraw that motion and make a public apology, then council does not need to act.”
The mayor asked, “Coun. Charlton, are you prepared to withdraw your motion?”
Charlton responded, “How can I withdraw a motion that’s already in the minutes?”
“Alright then, are you prepared to make an apology?” Granstrom asked.
Charlton asked, “For what?”
“For accusations of libel,” Granstrom replied.
“For contravention of the Community Charter, for contravention of the procedural bylaw, for contravention of our CAO’s contract,” Wallace added.
“Where and when did those occur?” Charlton asked.
Granstrom intervened, “So you’re not prepared then, [to apologize], can I assume that?”
“Assume whatever you want,” Charlton said.
Granstrom reviewed that an apology was necessary if council was to proceed.
“Spell it out,” Charlton said.
“It’s obvious to the rest of us,” Wallace muttered.
Granstrom took a lengthy pause, then read from his statement:
“Councillor Charlton without prior notice to this Council read a ”Notice of Motion” to terminate the employment of the City Manager Victor Kumar. This has contravened the Community Charter and potentially seriously breached Mr. Kumar’s employment contract.”
Granstrom turned to Charlton, “Are you prepared to apologize?”
“Not at this time,” Charlton said.
The council discussion on a motion to censure Charlton continued, in which Kathy Moore remarked, “Staff and council have spent way too much time on this issue, I want this to go away.”
She broadened her point to a global perspective. “If you look at all the truth and reconciliation commissions all over the world, who have had far worse accusations thrown back and forth, and those people have been able to sit down, put the past behind them, and move on with the business of what’s important to all of us: working on behalf of our community. If [this motion] gets this issue off the table, I don’t want to look at it one more time.”
Coun. Jill Spearn took a harder line than mere “censure,” defined by the mayor as a “slap on the wrist.”
“This is a cop out, undermining the seriousness of this issue,” Spearn said. “I too want to move on. We have better things to do than belabouring the negative conduct of Laurie Charlton.”
“But I’m not in favour of just sending it all away, so Laurie Charlton smugly walks out of here, [thinking] ‘Hmph, I won.’ I’m in favour of stronger consequences, so I will be voting against this.”
As it turns out, stronger consequences followed soon after Charlton took his turn to comment:
“Do you take full responsibility for this statement?” Charlton asked the mayor. “Did you prepare it yourself without help from anybody else?”
“I take full responsibility for it,” Granstrom said.
“Did you seek legal advice before you prepared the statement?”
The mayor said no, and Charlton asked, “Why not?”
“I believe that it isn’t necessary and that we have better things to do with our money than spend it on lawyers.”
“The statement from Mayor Granstrom is full of inaccuracies, misstatements and misleading comments,” Charlton said. “I think these statements are intended to persuade council to take actions that they have no authority to do.”
First off, Charlton said notices of motion don’t require prior notice. “They are the prior notice.”
He also said the mayor’s statement didn’t explain how Charlton’s actions contravened the Community Charter, and denied there was any contravention.
He proceeded, “my notice of motion came about because Mr. Kumar made libellous comments about Coun. Moore and myself, and I…”
Granstrom interrupted before Charlton could continue. “Councillor, you’re out of order!”
Kumar spoke up to the mayor, “This is out of order and I think you have to take action. The councillor is in breach of my employment contract, let’s be clear on that. If you wish to breach, let’s move on. I’m moving out, that’s what you are doing to me. So what is the action?”
Granstrom said to Charlton, “Your statement just now, again, accused the CAO of libel.”
Kumar added, “He needs to apologize, your worship, otherwise you remove him from the office. This is your opportunity right now.”
Granstrom continued, “You must apologize for that statement of libel right now, or I’m going to ask you to leave the meeting.”
Charlton denied it was a statement of libel.
Wallace was incredulous. “You accused [Kumar] of libel, how is that not a statement of libel?”
Granstrom repeated his request to Charlton, but Charlton denied that the mayor had the authority to ask him to leave.
“I have so,” Granstrom said. “No you don’t,” Charlton retorted.
Charlton asked to continue reading his statement, but the mayor flatly rejected this: “Not until you apologize.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Charlton said. “All I did was refer to my comments that were in my notice of motion.”
“You accused the CAO of libel. Apologize, or I ask you to leave the meeting,” the mayor repeated. “So?”
Charlton asserted he had nothing to apologize for. The mayor called a motion to sustain the chair’s decision and he received council’s support.
The meeting was adjourned until an RCMP officer arrived on scene 35 minutes later. Coun. Moore was not pleased, “This situation does not benefit our community.”
The mayor reconvened the meeting and asked one more time for an apology, but Charlton refused and the RCMP took over.
“Sir, could you just step outside with me?” the officer asked.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Charlton replied, “the mayor doesn’t have the authority to have you expel me.”
“He does,” the officer replied. “I’m here to enforce that bylaw to ask you to leave peacefully.”
The officer maintained that the issue was no longer public, but would be continued in the lobby. Charlton remained seated and denied there was an authority that could move him.
“If you wish to file a grievance, through the city, or by whatever means you want to. It’s not going to happen now,” the officer explained. “Stand up, leave this room right now.”
“By what authority, what legislation,” Charlton protested.
“Okay, stand up,” the officer said, taking him by the arm. “If you fail to comply with this, you will be charged and arrested for obstructing justice, do you understand?”
Charlton pressed for an authority.
“The Criminal Code of Canada,” the officer answered.
Faced with arrest, Charlton agreed to leave the room, “to go have a discussion.”