Red Deer city council has kicked Coun. Paul Harris off its audit committee for failing to pay his 2014 municipal taxes on time.
It sanctioned Harris on Tuesday after it ruled out going to court to force him to resign.
Council learned on March 13 that Harris owed $6,594.95 in taxes. When Harris failed to pay his taxes, he was disqualified to serve as a councillor under the Local Authorities Election Act.
When a city councillor is disqualified, the Municipal Government Act states he or she must resign. Councillors swear an oath of office to uphold their duties under the act.
City administration gave a letter to Harris on March 27 explaining that he was disqualified; however, Harris did not resign from council. He paid the tax arrears instead.
“I wasn’t aware that this would cause an issue for my role on council,” said Harris. “I contacted my partner immediately and he cleared up the arrears by 4:30 p.m. (on March 27).”
Harris said he learned of the oversight in payment for a corporation that he is part-owner on March 13 and was in the process of making arrangements to pay the debt.
“I understand that this was an issue, and it was cleared up immediately, and council is satisfied with their decision,” he said. “I am looking forward to continuing to serve the citizens that I was elected to serve.”
City council held three special meetings in April to discuss Harris’s refusal to resign and decide whether to remove him from office or impose other sanctions on him. City council does not have the power to remove a councillor on its own. To force Harris to resign, it would need to take the case to court.
After evaluating all of its options, council decided it was in the best interest of the city to sanction Harris rather than take the case to court. The financial cost of a court case could be significant, and legal advice suggested a judge would likely allow Harris to remain a councillor given the circumstances.
At a special meeting on Tuesday, council passed a resolution sanctioning Harris by a vote of 6-1. It stated that while Harris failed to ensure the taxes were paid before they were in arrears, he did not take advantage of his position as a councillor. Council removed Harris from his position on the audit committee, in light of the unique oversight role the committee plays in the city.
Mayor Tara Veer said city council needed to discuss the issue to fulfill its commitment to public service with integrity and accountability. Harris made a written submission to council but did not participate in the deliberations.
Veer said Harris’s conduct fell short of the standard prescribed by the Municipal Government Act and the standard expected of a member of council for the City of Red Deer.
“It’s fair to say that council was in a very difficult position,” said Veer. “Ultimately we arrived at a decision that we felt was in the best interests of the municipality as a whole. The resolution speaks to city council’s commitment to transparency and good governance and a desire to uphold the public’s trust.”
Coun. Lynne Mulder voted against the resolution because she did not agree with the process. She took issue with the requirements under the Muncipal Government Act, which forces a councillor to resign without any input from council or warning.
Mulder said her response would have been to contact Harris to advise him that his taxes were late and he was faced disqualification under the act.
“I see no reason why he couldn’t be spoken to and cleared and let’s get on with running the city rather than taking all this time to this,” she said. “Once he became aware of the significance of not paying his taxes which was the first day we met, they were paid within an hour.”
Mulder also did not agree with his sanction on the audit committee because she did not see the connection.
She noted the decisions were not taken lightly and the matter was carefully considered.
Council has also determined that it is in the public interest to disclose the information publicly.