War of words erupts at St. Mary’s council

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
September 23 2020

ST. MARY’S – In the pre-election push, when time is short and tempers can be even shorter, St. Mary’s Councillor Kaytland Smith and District Warden Michael Mosher treated colleagues and community spectators alike to a rare display of public pique last week.

But to at least one local resident, who witnessed the imbroglio from the gallery of Wednesday’s Committee of the Whole (COTW), what seemed like a disagreement over a mundane point of procedure actually packed real civic meaning. “That was the first meeting I had gone to, but the issues here were about the public good,” Sherbrooke resident Tim Sawlor told The Journal in an email.

Specifically, who has the right to set council agendas? How many, and which issues should consume any given meeting? And what constitutes an appropriate (or inappropriate) topic of discussion in an ostensibly public institution?

“My memory isn’t that good, and things happened really quickly,” said Lawlor, who concedes that he’s not “completely impartial” as his wife and Kaytland are friends. Nonetheless, he added, “I consider this very important, [even though] I can’t give you exact quotes.”

Fortunately, both Smith and Mosher can.

In an email to The Journal, Smith – who decided last month not to reoffer for her District 3/5 seat in October’s municipal election – explained that at last week’s COTW meeting she asked council to review its policy on time limits for discussions of agenda items and restrictions on the number of issues that can be considered at any one time.

“I requested [that] if council wishes to have an amendment made to the procedural policy to allow time, length, and/or limits on agenda items, [then it should] give direction to do so,” she said. “That way we can have the opportunity to have a proper debate and vote before the rules are enforced upon us.”

She elaborated: “Various questions were asked, including about a previous discussion we had about sending agenda items to the warden/deputy warden to be added to the agenda, to which I responded [that] any previous agreements we had would be overridden when we approved/implemented the [new] procedural policy.”

At that point, Smith said, “the warden became impassioned.”

Specifically, she noted, “He accused me of grandstanding and stated that [this] would not be allowed as long as he was warden. . .I then asked why it was okay for other councillors to ‘grandstand’ [when other councillors made statements about her] but not okay for me to do so. The warden requested examples. I offered two. He then became furious that I was naming people in a public meeting.”

Finally, she said, “the warden refused to allow me to respond and called for adjournment for the meeting. The motion was moved and seconded. A vote was not called. I pointed this out and was ignored, so [I] stated nay in protest as I felt the adjournment of the meeting was simply to quiet me on the subject.”

In a telephone interview, Mosher – who has been warden since 2014 and is running again for council seat in District 2 – corroborated the broad strokes of Smith’s account but emphasized that he had both the authority and responsibility to adjourn the meeting in the manner that he did. “When the discussion came to a point where it was inappropriate, I asked for a motion to adjourn, and that was seconded,” he said.

Asked whether he was irked by Smith’s response to his request to provide examples of other “grandstanding” councillors, Mosher said, “She could not provide evidence [of this] in those examples, other than what she said. And I could not stand for that; to let her stand there and desecrate somebody’s name.”

He added: “When somebody goes above and beyond what anybody would consider to be a normal discussion, it’s my responsibility to take control of the meeting. As the chair [I am] responsible for maintaining decorum.”

In fact, both Smith and Mosher confirm that the issue over procedural policy originated with her request, on September 8, to add two entirely unrelated items – one on diversity and inclusion training, and the other on streaming and recording council meetings – to the September 16 COTW agenda; a request that was denied.

“Upon receiving my agenda package (on September 11), I noted they were not included,” she said. “I emailed the warden questioning this exclusion. I was informed there would not be time for all my requests, and they would be considered again for a future COTW if there is time available. I responded [and] stated my high level of disappointment, and [my] feelings that the agenda was on the light side, as it only had four items. I received no response.”

In effect, she told The Journal, “I disagreed with the unilateral decision the warden made, and without the appointment of a deputy warden to take my concern to, I felt it was best to take it [procedural policy] directly to council for a discussion.”

For his part, Mosher said he had “no issues” with adding that particular item to the agenda and so “gladly” complied. As for the previous two matters, which effectively prepared the field for the ensuing the war of words, he told The Journal, “There is a point where we can’t accommodate every request.”

As an observer, Sawlor wonders if the exchange needed to escalate as it did. “My own impression is the reaction by Mosher to Smith’s arguments seemed disproportionate,” he said. “Politicians are held to a different standard though, I guess. It also seemed weird that no other councillors spoke; the back and forth was entirely between Mosher and Smith. It did happen quickly though, so there wasn’t much time for anyone else to jump in.”

Meanwhile, Smith said that during her term in office, she has felt “disrespected, unappreciated, and shut-out by some members of council.”

On the contrary, Mosher said, “She’s very fortunate that we have treated her the way that we have.”