A disqualification case against Rocky View County (RVC) councillor Samanntha Wright has been dismissed by Justice N. E. Devlin.
The county took Wright to court over two separate matters, an alleged pecuniary interest over her neighbour’s property, and the failure to pay her property taxes.
The judgement came surprisingly quick, less than two weeks after being heard at the Court of Queen's Bench on May 17.
In regards to the alleged pecuniary interest, Justice Devlin called Wright’s interest “too remote, speculative and uncertain to be material.”
He said Wright had “approached the issue in good faith and with due diligence. Nothing was hidden from public view.”
Devlin called Wright’s lack of payment of her taxes a “careless and irresponsible mistake.” However, he found RVC council's conduct in the matter “fell well below the expected standard of democratic due process.”
He went on to claim the council majority’s motivation “was the product of political animus towards Councillor Wright and a desire to remove her for reasons unrelated to the tax debt.”
"Irrespective of the merits of the unlying case against Councillor Wright, the court should avoid lending its authority to unfair and politically motivated processes or being seen as an instrumentality of political retribution," states Devlin in his conclusion.
The pecuniary interest allegations were based on Wright having voted on the January 2019 redesignation of the property immediately adjacent to her home. The judge noted that “the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scheme created by the MGA warrants a constrained interpretation of pecuniary interests” and that “it should be read in a way that avoids putting councillors at risk of significant personal cost when deciding whether to vote on a matter that peripherally impacts them.”
As for the tax issue, Wright never denied her taxes were unpaid.
“My husband is responsible for all the bills in our home. I simply was not aware,” she says. “He thought he could take advantage of the late payment option. He didn’t want to draw my attention to the matter as I had just been sanctioned and had lost 30 per cent of my pay. When the matter was brought to my attention, they were paid immediately.”
Justice Devlin said the special meeting addressing the tax issue was done in haste and was unfair.
"Put bluntly, basic procedural fairness was abandoned when the MD and council were presented with an opportunity to remove Councillor Wright, who had by that point become their political bête noire."
He said it didn't make sense for Councillor Wright to have knowingly allowed the situation to arise, given the highly contentious political climate.
He also noted that the county’s immediate implementation of processes to ensure that other councillors did not unwittingly fall into the same dilemma acknowledged that councillors can make mistakes and diminished any need to make an example of her.
Wright believes the intention of the provision in the Municipal Government Act is not to penalize elected officials for making honest mistakes. She believes it is there for councillors who will not pay their taxes because they want to abuse their position.
Wright is beyond pleased with the ruling and says the case has been stressful for her entire family. She believes the judge saw everything for what it was, and then some.
"I had to have faith in the system, that the system was good."
In the opening statement of his overview of the case, Devlin states "The Municipal District of Rocky View's council is not a happy family."
Wright was one of the three RVC councillors who were sanctioned. Those sanctions were overturned by Justice James Eamon last July. The decision is being appealed by the county.
"All I've done all along is to try to do right and stand up for my residents. I know six will always beat three, but there was a way to deal with the three of us that didn't involve going to court, in my opinion."
Throughout it all, she concluded what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
"I'm not going to say that I haven't been picked on in my term. Absolutely I've been picked on, but somebody has to stand up to being bullied, and I figured I had the strength for it, so let's go for it."
Justice, though, comes at a high financial cost. She's concerned that someone without the financial resources to defend themselves would have no choice but to resign.
While feeling vindicated by the ruling, Wright has not decided if she will run in the fall election.