April 17th, 2024

Legal avenue could drag on, expert says of city hall riff

By COLLIN GALLANT on April 2, 2024.

Stormy times at city hall continue. A municipal politics expert tells the News the riff between the mayor and city council could drag on should the two sides insist on using legal avenues to resolve the issue.--NEWS FILE PHOTO

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

A municipal government expert says it’s hard to know exactly what took place ahead of a dispute between staff, Medicine Hat’s mayor, council and top administrators landing on the front pages 10 days ago.

But he predicts the controversy can only be lessened if the parties involved work at it outside the courts or the realm of public opinion.

Paul Salvatore is the head of Municipal Experts Inc., a consulting firm that works with towns, cities and counties on special projects, like economic development strategies and general corporate culture.

He says he has no background information on sanctions levelled on Hat Mayor Linnsie Clark other than what’s been made public, and hasn’t worked for the City of Medicine Hat.

“It appears that there has been a level of conflict there among different members of council and administration,” Salvatore told the News on Monday, about 10 days after council voted to restrict Clark’s powers and she responded by requesting a judicial review.

“Whatever actions have taken place haven’t resolved that, so they’ve decided that moving that into the legal arena is the way they want to go,” said Salvatore. “Generically, from a corporate perspective, that’s quite negative and creates a detrimental response. It can be harmful for an organization.

“At the end of the day, anything you can do to restore that respect and de-escalate the situation would be helpful.”

He also said because most of the events leading up to the controversy took place outside public view, there’s “no context” for the public to help base an opinion.

The controversy has split opinion in the city and both sides have said hope for resolution lies with the actions of the other.

Last week the city released much of a third-party legal firm’s investigation of the complaint filed by Coun. Shila Sharps against Clark for her treatment of city manager Ann Mitchell on Aug. 21. The two argued over whether corporate changes required an official bylaw amendment prior to enacting the shuffle of some departments that resulted in layoffs and some promotions.

Clark was removed as the chair of council meetings – a rotation of other council members is being established to fill the role – and is barred from communicating with Mitchell except through email that is CC’d to other council members.

She cannot act as an official spokesperson for council, and has had her $144,000 annual salary cut in half going forward.

Last week Clark held a press conference with supporters stating that penalties were disproportionate and she would seek and stand by the result of a judicial review, but hoped council would reverse its decision without legal action.

The council resolution requests that Clark reflect on her actions and consider offering and apology to Mitchell. Clark said last week she is taking time to reflect and asked others to as well.

Late Monday, the seven councillors who voted in favour of the restrictions released a signed joint statement stating they feel the decision was “in the best interests of the community.”

“This legislation requires us to keep in confidence matters discussed in closed session,” it reads in part. “To uphold that duty we are unable to respond to, or correct, any misstatements relating to that issue.”

Salvatore says conflict in political offices and other workplaces can be common and difficult to understand.

“I think it happens more than people would like to think,” he said. “You really don’t know the context of what’s happening in in-camera meetings.”

In general, any disciplinary action against an employee or public official begins on a progressive basis, that is warnings graduating to action and harsher actions over time.

“There’s really no winner in a conflict that’s out in the open,” he said. “In the end, if the people who are most involved are able to back up, shake hands and move forward, then you have a path forward. But if you become entrenched and fixated on legal outcomes to get the outcome, then it could drag on for a while.”

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