Mayor Stephens’ comments on saving Mindemoya Old School at issue
CENTRAL MANITOULIN – Upset over recent comments made by Mayor Richard Stephens in the media and his refusal to apologize to council for not publicly supporting council’s decision to demolish the Old School, Councillor Derek Stephens put forward a motion, seconded by Councillor Steve Shaffer, calling on the mayor to resign—the first such motion in living memory. When the motion came to debate, most councillors indicated they would not be supporting the motion at this time, leading the mover and seconder to withdraw the motion.
The motion calling on the mayor to resign came about during discussion of an item under new business titled ‘Roles and responsibilities of council members regarding support of council decisions’ that had been added to the agenda by Councillor Stephens.
Councillor Stephens explained that he asked to have the item put on the agenda after seeing remarks made by the mayor in the media regarding the demolition of the Mindemoya Old School building following a virtual meeting held by the Friends of the OId School (‘Friends of Old School bid to save historic building,’ January 13, Page 1). In that article the mayor was quoted as saying he disagreed with the decision to tear down the historic building. “Council has always been told that we have to support the decisions of council,” said Councillor Stephens, going on to point out that council’s procedural bylaw calls on all members of council to “respect and support the decisions of council. Council has made a decision on what we want to do.”
In addition to remarks to The Expositor, Councillor Stephens accused the mayor of providing guided tours of the Old School building and characterizing the building as “contaminated with mould and asbestos.”
Councillor Stephens went on to say that members of council have been “harassed” with emails following the mayor’s comments in the media and that the actions of the mayor “should not be allowed after council has brought (the request for proposals for demolition) forward.”
Mayor Stephens replied “noted.”
Councillor Shaffer said that the item was “a difficult discussion.” He went on to read out a prepared statement on the issue supporting Councillor Stephen’s position.
Councillor Angela Johnston said that she agreed with the position put forward by Councillor Stephens and that she felt “blindsided” and “hurt” in seeing the mayor’s comments.
Councillor Al Tribinevicius then asked what meeting was being referred to in the discussion. After being informed by Mayor Stephens that it was a virtual meeting held by Zoom that he attended after being sent an invitation, Councillor Tribinevicius confirmed that he too attended the virtual meeting regarding the Old School. He noted that he was not at the subsequent property committee meeting which heard delegations regarding the OId School. “I agree with a lot of the people who are trying to save it,” he said, going on to list his reasons, including the soundness of the structure and the desirability of seeing a university partnered organization such as Weengushk Film Institute of M’Chigeeng located in the downtown area of Mindemoya.
As Councillor Tribinevicius was expounding further on his support of saving the Old School and its potential as a field hospital Councillor Stephens called a point of order, requesting the councillor speak to the question of members of council supporting the decisions of council.
Councillor Tribinevicius responded that he is a member of council and that the decision “does not change my mind. I support the council, (but) I can be opposed to tearing the building down. I don’t think it is a big issue.”
Councillor Rose Diebolt also voiced her agreement with Councillor Stephens saying, “(Councillor) Steve (Shaffer) said it well” and going on to add that she supported Councillor Stephens bringing the discussion forward on the agenda.
Councillor Dale Scott agreed that the discussion was a difficult one. He noted the conflict between an individual’s freedom of speech as well as a person’s right to speak their mind and the obligation to support decisions of council, but in the end, he affirmed that councillors must stand by decisions of council.
Councillor Tribinevicius said that he did not think the municipality needed more parking, in reference to the extended parking lot the demolition of the Old School would bring.
Councillor Stephens reiterated that when council had made a decision “you have to support it, you can’t undermine it.” Councillor Tribinevicius responded that he was not undermining the decision, he just had a “different opinion on the issue.”
Following each councillor’s input on the question, Mayor Stephens responded, noting that he had been “a little surprised” by the controversy and that he had not anticipated the discussion and did not think his remarks were an issue. “I have never had a problem speaking my mind,” he said. Mayor Stephens noted his long involvement in municipal politics stretching back to the days before amalgamation and the former Township of Carnarvon.
The mayor went on to outline some of his reasoning for supporting the Old School and that he believes he is representing the will of the people who elected him to office. “I don’t think I am doing anything wrong,” he said. “I think this mayor is just doing his job.”
Councillor Stephens asked for the opinion of the town clerk.
“No, this is politics,” responded CAO/Clerk Ruth Frawley, noting her position is strictly administrative.
Councillor Stephens warned the mayor that he was forcing him to make a motion he did not want to have to make.
Mayor Stephens refused to back down. “I have seen three letters in support of tearing the Old School down,” he said. “I have seen dozens of letters in support of keeping the Old School.”
A debate ensued between Councillor Shaffer and Mayor Stephens over the responsibility of an elected municipal official to represent the will of council. Councillor Shaffer maintained that involved support of the decisions of council; Mayor Stephens disagreed. “We are here to represent the people of the municipality,” he said. “I am of the firm belief that that the majority of taxpayers and residents of our community are in support (of saving the Old School building).”
Councillor Shaffer suggested that should he publicly oppose a decision of council he would be sanctioned by council and the mayor was no different.
Councillor Tribinevicius questioned the manner and procedure in which the original decision to ask for a request for proposals (RFP) was put forward from the property committee and the motion put to council.
Councillor Stephens reiterated that council’s procedural bylaw called on members to support the decision and its implementation in all things. He referenced the oath of office taken by councillors when they first take office.
“If a decision is made by council, I have no way of stopping it,” said Mayor Stephens. “No way of interfering with it, no way of stopping it.”
CAO/Clerk Frawley interjected to inform Councillor Stephens that the oath of office does not contain the reference made by Councillor Stephens, but that it was contained in the procedural bylaw.
“It is not in the Municipal Act,” supplied Mayor Stephens, suggesting the act supersedes a municipal bylaw. He then went on to say the matter would not be decided that night. “You can call for a motion, but it won’t be recognized.”
Councillor Stephens countered that he could put forward a motion of non-confidence if a majority of council supported his doing so. “It will be seconded,” he said.
“You sure are in a hurry to get rid of an old building,” rejoined Mayor Stephens.
“It has nothing to do with an old building,” countered Councillor Stephens. “You are not getting it.”
Councillor Shaffer said that he had hoped for a simple apology from the mayor. “I simply ask that you support the decision of council. This has nothing to do with the Old School.”
Mayor Stephens said that he could not apologize.
“I think we are all entitled to our opinion,” said Councillor Johnston. “We don’t have to change our personal opinion.” But she went on to affirm that a member of council should not speak against a decision of council in the press and that all the elected members of council believe they are speaking on behalf of their constituents.
Mayor Stephens responded that while he appreciated Councillor Johnston’s opinion, he did not share it. While the request for proposals have not yet gone out, he was still trying to find a case for keeping the Old School standing. “I don’t see any bad actors in that at all.”
With an impasse between council and mayor clear, Councillor Stephens said that he had no choice but to put forward a motion calling for the mayor to resign.
Council first voted on whether to allow the motion to proceed to the table, with Councillor Johnston making the motion and Councillor Shaffer seconding. A recorded vote saw a unanimous vote to allow the motion to proceed.
Councillor Stephens reiterated that he did not want to make the motion but that the mayor had left him no choice. The motion was seconded by Councillor Shaffer.
Councillor Tribinevicius indicated that he would not support the motion. Councillor Scott said he did not think this was the time or place for the motion and would not support it, while Councillor Diebolt said that she agreed with Councillor Scott. Councillor Johnston said she felt “handcuffed by this,” but would not support the motion and Councillor Shaffer said that while he had seconded the motion to put it on the table, he asked if there were other options for council to pursue.
CAO/Clerk Frawley noted that the municipality’s integrity commissioner would be an alternate avenue.
Councillor Stephens and Councillor Shaffer then withdrew their motion.
While the council of Central Manitoulin did pass a motion to call for RFPs for the demolition of the Old School, most councillors also indicated at the time that issuing RFPs was not a fiat and that should a viable, funded and substantiated plan to keep the Old School appear before council, the RFP did not have to be acted upon.