The court case calling for the disqualification of Coun. Samanntha Wright from Rocky View County (RVC) council has been officially dismissed, according to the case’s presiding judge, Justice Nicholas E. Devlin.
The court date of May 17, which was initially set for December but was pushed back due to COVID-19 restrictions, centred around the County’s seeking of Wright’s disqualification due to matters of pecuniary interest and failure to pay taxes on time. The judge's verdict was delivered on May 31.
“I am beyond pleased with the decision,” Wright said in a statement after Devlin’s verdict was announced. “My heartfelt gratitude goes out to all those who have supported me through this stressful time, and, of course to my legal counsel who argued my case brilliantly.”
The County’s case against Wright has been going on for nearly a year and a half, after a press release dated Jan. 14, 2020 called for her dismissal from council due to her voting on matters RVC claimed she had pecuniary interest in. According to that release, Wright participated in a public hearing and council discussions before voting on a conceptual scheme and land use re-designation for the Bearspaw Heights development on January 8, 2019.
“She again participated in discussions and voted on land subdivision for the property on September 24, 2019. The councillor is an owner of land immediately adjacent to the Bearspaw Heights property,” the release stated.
“A County legal opinion and a Municipal Affairs Interpretation Bulletin clearly indicate such adjacency is a pecuniary interest, meaning Wright should have recused herself from any discussions and decisions on the matter.”
As for the County’s argument about a failure to pay taxes, six days later on Jan. 20, 2020, RVC sent out another press release calling for Wright’s disqualification, as she owed on her property taxes. According to the Municipal Government Act (MGA) and Local Authorities Election Act, a councillor is ineligible for office if they owe a debt to the municipality of more than $50.
The County’s release stated Wright had not paid property taxes owing on her property for 2018 or 2019. Including penalties, the total property tax arrears for Wright’s property amounted to $10,572.27.
However, Devlin sided with Wright on both items. In the official ruling document, he said in regard to the pecuniary interest matter, Wright was, at worst, honestly mistaken.
“She took all reasonable steps to inform her decision, short of funding a private legal opinion on the question,” Devlin wrote. “Her uncontradicted evidence is that none of these sources suggested that the circumstances presented an obvious pecuniary interest that precluded her from participating in the matter.”
Devlin also said the timing and circumstances of the move to disqualify Wright suggest that it is not animated by a legitimate ethical concern over conflict of interest, but rather “driven by political hostility.”
“The motion leading to this application came almost a year after the fact,” he said. “In the intervening time, an internecine conflict had arisen between Wright and a majority of council and RVC’s administration.”
According to Devlin, Wright approached the issue in good faith and with due diligence, and hid nothing from public view.
“[None] of her fellow councillors nor the municipal administration voiced any concerns about her conduct,” he said. “At worst, Wright made an understandable mistake in judgment. On the other hand, the use of this pretense to remove her is transparently a function of a political feud on RVC’s council.”
As for Wright’s failure to pay taxes, she had argued her husband is responsible for all household bills, including property taxes. She swore she believed he had paid the property taxes on their family’s behalf and that their account with RVC was current.
Devlin said Wright’s personal arrangements with her husband in no way diminish her individual responsibility to pay taxes on the property as its co-owner.
“I accept as a fact that Wright was genuinely surprised that her property taxes had gone unpaid,” he said.
The Justice went on to say while he had some suspicions in this regard, multiple factors persuaded him to accept her evidence on balance of probabilities. First, he argued neither Wright nor her husband were significantly shown to be untruthful in their description of how the indebtedness arose and what she knew about it.
Secondly, Devlin argued the 2019 tax bill would have been delivered shortly after council voted to reduce Wright’s salary by 30 per cent – a condition of a sanction against her and two other council members, related to a separate incident. He claimed this lent credence to Wright’s husband’s evidence that he had a heightened desire to shield his wife from the financial concerns that led him to put off paying their property tax.
Third, the couple’s discordant approaches to the development application objectively confirmed they operated as two highly independent entities, according to Devlin’s verdict. Finally, he said Wright paid the outstanding tax amounts in full within hours of learning about the arrears, suggesting she had no intention of avoiding payment and was not concealing an inability to pay.
Devlin found the special meeting when RVC voted to seek Wright’s disqualification for her owed taxes was “the product of political animus towards Coun. Wright and a desire to remove her for reasons unrelated to the tax debt.”
“This conclusion is inescapable given that none of the councillors who voted in favour of the motion expressed the slightest interest in hearing her full explanation for the situation,” he said.
After the matter was settled in court, Wright said her faith in the legal system is strong, despite everything her family went through as a result of the case.
“I am grateful that Justice Devlin saw things for exactly what they were,” she said. “I ran [for council] on accountability and transparency, but most importantly I ran to represent the residents and I believe I am doing that. I have had a tremendous amount of support through this. I could have walked away, which no doubt some wanted me to do, but that didn’t seem just or fair. This ruling proves that.”
Adversely, RVC Reeve Daniel Henn said after the verdict was announced that he was disappointed with Devlin's ruling.
“From the County’s perspective, we felt this was pretty cut and dry,” he said.
“It’s frustrating that we have the [Municipal Government Act] and the Local Authorities Election Act stuff is not being enforced. This isn’t the first time that we have had issues that have dealt with the MGA and the breach of that act. The courts seemed reluctant to enforce the act. It is unfortunate.”