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Two Saint John councillors sue city over ‘humiliating’ sanctions

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Saint John N.B. councillors file lawsuit against city
WATCH: Saint John councillors Joanna Killen and Brent Harris have filed a notice of motion against the city. The lawsuit stems from a code of conduct investigation launched by the city against the two councillors. Nathalie Sturgeon has more – Nov 1, 2023

Saint John councillors Joanna Killen and Brent Harris are suing the City of Saint John following their removal from committees back in October.

The two met CUPE Local 486 – the City of Saint John’s inside workers – when they were striking for fairer wages, telling Global News in early October they felt a duty to hear the union’s perspective directly.

“I should be allowed as an elected official to hear both sides of the story and I should be able to represent, with my voice, at those votes,” Harris said in an interview on Oct. 4.

A complaint was lodged against the two for allegedly violating the code of conduct by Coun. Gary Sullivan on Sept. 27, 2023. The two were stripped of their committee appointments in the council’s regular meeting on Oct. 3.

A timeline 

On Oct. 2, Coun. Joanna Killen stated in an affidavit she received an email from solicitor Catherine Fawcett, notifying her she was the external investigator to a complaint against her by a fellow councillor.

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“The particulars were not disclosed and the complaint was not attached to the email,” the affidavit reads.

Killen said that she was told she had 10 days to respond to the complaint.

Both Killen and Harris went to a common council meeting and attended an in-camera session of the Committee of the Whole, which is not public.

“On October 3, 2023, no motion was before the Committee of the Whole with respect to the complaint,” the affidavit reads. “But, during the session of COTW on Oct. 3, the matter was raised. I and…Brent Harris (who is the subject of similar complaint) were asked to leave the meeting of the committee of the whole while the rest of council discussed the matter.”

Killen said she left the meeting, which was virtual due to the strike.  Fellow councillor, Brent Harris, objected to being expelled from the meeting and refused to leave, according to his affidavit.

“The other members were requested to leave the meeting and reconvene on separate videoconference link, to which I was not invited,” Harris’s affidavit reads.

Both say they were unable to “respond to issues raised in the compliant or participate in the discussion regarding the complaint,” which the affidavit adds is “contrary to the code of conduct by-law.”

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The council moved into an open session, which is public, and the final item on the agenda was the resolution to strip Killen and Harris of their committee appointments.

“The mayor did not call for debate,” Killen and Harris’s affidavit read. “The mayor asked who was in favour, but at no time did she ask if there was opposition to the motion.”

Coun. Paula Radwan called a point of order to ask why Harris hadn’t declared a conflict, and Harris questioned why Sullivan hadn’t — given he was the complainant.

The YouTube video feed of the Oct. 3 council meeting confirms the mayor did not call for any opposition, but said only “we’re done with that, the motion passes.”

Killen was subsequently removed from the growth committee and the Saint John community arts board. Harris was removed from the transit commission and the growth committee.

Both councillors wrote in their affidavit they have not yet been provided an opportunity to discuss the motion or sanctions with the committee of the whole or in open sessions.

The lawsuit

The notice of motion for the lawsuit was filed on Oct. 26 with the Court of King’s Bench, and alleges the city violated procedural fairness and several sections of the code of conduct.

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“The resolution was made in a motion that was not properly before common council,” the motion reads. “It was voted on and passed the same day it was put on the agenda, contrary to…the by-law respecting procedures of common council of the City of Saint John.”

The Statement of Claim states council violated the code of conduct, which says “a member of council who is the subject of an investigation shall be afforded procedural fairness, including the opportunity to respond to the allegations before council makes a decision or imposes any sanction.”

It also states the removal of the “applicants from their council committee duties amounts to a humiliating and severe sanction imposed before they had an opportunity to respond to the complaints.”

It adds Harris and Killen were deprived of their opportunity to argue against severe sanctions. It alleges six total breaches of procedural fairness.

They seek payment from the city for legal fees due to the “humiliating sanctions imposed upon the applicants.”

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The City of Saint John declined to comment, adding it doesn’t do so when matters are before the court. It also did not respond to questions about the status of the code of conduct complaint.

Harris and Killen said on the advice of legal counsel, they could not comment on the suit.

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