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Court ruling a wakeup call

Witless Bay case shows need to revamp province’s municipal legislation, Lorna Yard says


Published on July 11, 2017

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A Newfoundland Supreme Court decision that found the deputy mayor of Witless Bay had faked his residency prior to the nomination deadline for a fall 2016 byelection should be a wakeup call to the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment, says the woman who started the case.

Lorna Yard said the case shows that municipal legislation in the province is outdated and needs to be revamped.

It wouldn’t have mattered who this was, whether it was Mr. Paul, or so-and-so down the road. … The fact of the matter is that I knew (Paul and his wife, Marlene) were not permanent residents. Everybody knew they weren’t permanent residents.

Lorna Yard

“How do you expect people to have any faith in municipal government if someone can just walk in with a P.O. box and a light bill and say, ‘OK, I’m going to run,’” Yard said. “The Municipal Elections Act is very vague, its powers very broad reaching, and staff and councillors are not getting a whole lot of support. It’s a different time now than when these towns were incorporated in 1986. The towns are bigger, budgets are bigger, the considerations are definitely more complicated.

“I would say that this court case, hopefully, shows that we need a complete revamp of that act and of how Municipal Affairs interacts with towns.”

The court case centred around the Witless Bay byelection held last fall to fill two empty seats on the town council. Southern Shore businessman and developer Fraser Paul filed nomination papers on Sept. 27, 2016 in which he claimed he had resided in the town at 104 Gallows Cove Rd. for at least the 30-day period required under the Municipal Elections Act.

Yard, who lives on Gallows Cove Road, said the house Paul claimed to be living in at the time was vacant and there was never any activity that indicated it was occupied. She decided to challenge Paul in court on his residency claims.

The case drew several Witness Bay and area residents into court. Many who lived on Gallows Cove Road testified to never seeing any activity at No. 104, while other witnesses testified they had visited Paul at the house on occasion and believed he lived there.

Power bills, photographs and other evidence was called during a trial that lasted three days — something presiding Justice David Orsborn said went on longer than required.

In his decision, Orsborn found that Paul — who by the time of the trial had become deputy mayor of Witless Bay — had faked his residency in the town for the 30 days preceding the nomination day of Sept. 27. He noted the evidence of the Yard witnesses was “comprehensive, consistent and in accordance with reality.”

Attempts to reach Paul and Witless Bay Mayor Maureen Murphy were unsuccessful Tuesday.

The Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment issued a statement to The Telegram saying the department will work with the Department of Justice and Public Safety to determine the implications of the ruling.

“This is the first case where a resident of a community has been deemed to have not been a resident for 30 days preceding nomination, yet still was elected and carried out duties on council,” the department stated.

Though it was alluded to at trial that Yard and Paul have had disagreements in the past over developments in the town, Yard said Tuesday her decision to take the issue to court was not personal.

“It wouldn’t have mattered who this was, whether it was Mr. Paul, or so-and-so down the road,” Yard said. “Every morning I went in court I said good morning to him.

“The fact of the matter is that I knew (Paul and his wife, Marlene) were not permanent residents. Everybody knew they weren’t permanent residents.

“In his judgment the judge talks about how he was reluctant to make the decision because he was afraid it would lessen people’s confidence in the election process. For me, my concern was pretty well the same thing because it was common knowledge in the town that they weren’t permanent residents, and so for me, I could see people’s confidence in the election process being diminished if somebody didn’t challenge it.”

The Telegram could not determine Tuesday if Paul will step down or be removed from the Witless Bay town council as a result of the court decision. Should Paul no longer be a member of the town council, it will leave only four members — the council was reduced from seven to five members some months ago when the then-mayor and deputy mayor resigned.

The Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment said that even with just four members on council, “the town council would still constitute a quorum, allowing it to continue to function.”

Since April, however, the Witless Bay town council has had trouble carrying on business, as many meetings had to be cancelled due to a lack of quorum.

Murphy has apologized to residents for not being able to proceed with applications for such things as permits and other town business.