The mayor of the Rural Municipality (RM) of St. Andrews says she felt blindsided by a decision that saw some of her power stripped away.
In a special council meeting Monday night, a vote determined Mayor Joy Sul can no longer chair meetings or act as a spokesperson for the RM.
Deputy Mayor John Preun now assumes those responsibilities and said the decision came after allegations of verbal abuse against a municipal employee.
Sul is accused of bullying a staff member over changes to a recent news release, and as a result, council voted to make changes to her role.
“Council agreed it was a proper news release to give out, and madam mayor then went and changed it to suit her needs,” Preun told 680 CJOB. “(She) bullied an employee into wanting to send that into media, which was the wrong thing to do.”
While the questionable news release was the catalyst for Monday’s action, Preun said there was a history of conflict between the mayor and council — and that the most recent incident was the last straw.
“We felt that she was running a very biased meeting with an outcome that was not fair, because it was not debated fairly,” he said.
“She was a main debater, and often a main combatant, in the council chambers.”
Sul, who has been mayor of the municipality north of Winnipeg since last October, said the conflict over the release was related to misattributed quotes that she didn’t feel comfortable sending out to media. She also told 680 CJOB, however, that the discord didn’t begin with the incident.
“I’ve suspected there was a coup going on (since) the summertime.
“There’s been disrespectful behaviour toward me,” Sul added.
Sul said she feels it’s a case in which five newly elected councillors are trying to nullify an election by removing powers from the community’s choice for mayor. Her lawyer is looking at a judicial review, and she said she’s received strong support from residents since Monday’s meeting.
Prior to her election as mayor, Sul — then a councillor — was involved in another clash with the municipality in which she filed a discrimination complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, alleging workplace harassment and gender discrimination.
The RM conducted in-depth research into the claims, working with a Winnipeg law firm to assess the workplace environment. That report determined there wasn’t gender-based discrimination but suggested there was room for improvement in the way council members interact with each other and with staff.
Sul said in September 2018 that she felt the report was biased and one-sided.
Deputy mayor Preun told 680 CJOB on Wednesday that he hopes council can set the record straight and convince residents that they have made the right decision going forward. He called the decision to remove the mayor’s powers ‘one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.’
“What we’re doing is we hope as a council, as a complete council, to focus on what the important needs are for the residents – all residents, not just a few of them. We want to promote going forward as a team of St. Andrews council, not one person or another… and do the right thing.”
Another Manitoba mayor, West St. Paul’s Cheryl Christian, told 680 CJOB that these types of small-town political conflicts are all too common throughout the province.
Christian was part of a group that brought issues of bullying and harassment forward in 2017 as part of an effort to formally address internal squabbles in municipal councils.
That effort led to the creation of the Municipal Amendment Act, or Bill 2, aimed at strengthening codes of conduct for council members. The bill received royal assent in June.
“Unfortunately, there have been issues for many years in small-town politics, issues of bullying and harassment… and sad to say, the issues in St. Andrews are not new,” said Christian.
“We’re elected by residents in our communities to make decisions, to have healthy debate and discussion at the table — and what we see and hear is it extends into bullying and harassment, whether it’s over issues or whether it is gender-based or disagreements, and it turns into hair-pulling, name-calling.
“Normal debate and leadership at the table goes sideways, and then there’s nothing that can be done about it.”
Christian said the goal behind Bill 2 is to define not only what’s acceptable at municipal councils but set guidelines for outside resources to come in and investigate conflicts as well as determine the appropriate punishment for wrongdoing.
Although she said she doesn’t know all of the ins and outs of the conflict in St. Andrews, Christian said the drastic decision to remove the mayor’s powers are concerning.
“To take it to an extreme step, to removing powers that are part of the Municipal Act and legislated to us as mayors is concerning, and it should be concerning to residents.
“There’s something very wrong and undermining democracy, undermining trust in our local government, when things can go that sideways.”