There is no place for bullying around any municipal council table.
That’s the message the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM) hopes is heard after bitter acrimony led to the recent dissolution of what was left of the RM of Ritchot’s council earlier this month.
On May 10 Indigenous and Municipal Relations Minister Eileen Clarke appointed Roger Bouvier, a retired municipal services officer and CAO, administrator to handle the municipality’s affairs until a byelection midsummer when residents will elect an entirely new council.
The situation is highly unusual given that a council is usually dissolved in cases where a council is accused of financial mismanagement.
In Ritchot’s case, its mayor, Jackie Hunt, who had served since 2014, resigned April 28, citing “name-calling and belligerent behaviour” by some councillors, both during public and in-camera meetings of council.
Two other councillors also resigned shortly afterward, leaving the RM with just two members, including the councillor accused of uncivil behaviour. Without quorum a municipality cannot hold meetings nor make decisions.
Under The Municipal Act, an entire existing council and its CAO are deemed to have resigned by way of appointment of an administrator. A byelection for mayor and four councillors will be held July 19.
AMM executive director Joe Masi called what’s happened in Ritchot “an unfortunate situation.” Regardless of how difficult decisions are, or how much councillors may disagree, elected representatives are expected to show respect to one another at all times, he said.
“People who get elected aren’t going to agree all the time, that’s not why they’re there,” said Masi. But the only acceptable standard of behaviour around all council tables is one of respect and constructive dialogue, he stressed.
Masi said the widely publicized situation in Ritchot is unusual and this sort of dysfunction is rare.
“It is an exception as opposed to the norm,” he said. “Most municipalities work well together even if they may have disagreements. There’s 137 municipalities in Manitoba and the vast majority are functioning well.”
AMM offers all municipal elected officials training through events such as its Municipal Officials Seminar to help educate themselves on things such as effective leadership, handling conflict and working with difficult people, he said. They want their members attending these sessions.
“We take this seriously as an association.”
Councils that get into conflict also have various resources to help work through it, he added. Various councils have called in mediation services over contentious matters. They can also ask municipal services officials to help sort out disagreements or interpretations of municipal law.
The now-former Ritchot mayor released a public statement about her decision to resign saying, “when a council cannot function as a group, and when mediation does not work, and when name-calling and belligerent behaviour become the norm, it is time to re-evaluate your spot at the table.”
Hunt also said discussions are needed at both municipal and provincial levels about how to better protect those who step up to serve in public office.
There currently is no mechanism within The Municipal Act to discipline councillors whose behaviour is uncivil.
The matter may be raised at June district meetings, Masi said.