Breaking the Silence: Ritchot’s Former Mayor and Councillors Speak Out

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3 Jackie Hunt
Jackie Hunt Jackie Hunt

Jackie Hunt
Looking back on her resignation, Hunt still firmly believes she made the only decision she could have under the circumstances.

“I don’t think I did it out of a position of weakness,” says Hunt. “I did it out of a position of strength. I was the head of that council, we had been struggling for a very long time, and we were broken. Absolutely broken to the point where we couldn’t have a simple conversation about a simple item without it escalating. The last conversation I had with that council is that we need to go home and think about what we’re doing in this council. That was the day I resigned. I thought, ‘If I remove myself from that equation, maybe they’ll find a way to work together.’ Something had to happen. It was a tough decision and a horrible [realization] that I wouldn’t be able to finish what I started. Something I loved so much.”

Hunt says that during the past two and a half years, they’ve endured a split council. Many decisions throughout the period had been stalled or completely road-blocked by their inability to come to a consensus. Typically, issues came down to a two-way split with Hunt, Robert, and Mamchuk on one side and Webb and Dumaine on the other. Over the years, Hunt says, the split escalated into disrespectful finger-pointing and standoffs that made council gatherings unbearable. 

“[Ritchot residents] need to know who [was] sitting around that table,” says Hunt. “They need to know that government was not functioning. Every decision was being micromanaged [and] turning into an argument. There was no consensus. No common ground. It also felt to me that it was no longer about the best interest of the municipality but a personal vendetta against other councillors. We weren’t moving forward and decisions weren’t being made in good faith. There was zero trust around that table.”

Recognizing early in her term that council needed outside help, Hunt sought advice from Mitch Duvall, Ritchot’s Chief Administrative Officer, and searched through The Municipal Act, a set of laws and statutes concerning municipal affairs. According to the former mayor, the province provided no mechanisms to aid them in working through the dysfunction they faced. A year into her tenure as mayor, Hunt recommended to council that an independent mediator be brought in. Council agreed to the process. 

Each councillor met with the mediator individually, but when it came time to meet with the mediator as a council body, one member declined to participate. Hunt was disappointed but not surprised. Though the process was helpful, it didn’t equip them to move forward.

The internal discord finally came to a head when a St. Adolphe resident approached council over concerns regarding the development of an outdoor rink in Garden Ridge Park that bordered his property. Internal allegations later surfaced that accused Hunt, Robert, and Mamchuk of secrecy, conflict of interest, and misallocated funds. 

Hunt calls these allegations unfounded. She says that the two councillors making the claims were privy to and participated in all of the decisions regarding the park, including the rink.

A deeper investigation into Ritchot’s council minutes, which are available to the public, appears to confirm this. Resolution #2016-01-17, dated January 5, 2016, reads, “Whereas the Garden Ridge Greenspace Committee will be developing into greenspace two lots in the Forest Ridge/Garden View developments in the spring of 2016; and whereas, in the meantime, the Garden Ridge Greenspace Committee has built a temporary outdoor community rink… therefore be it resolved that council approves the community outdoor rink in Garden Ridge Park.”

Council minutes further indicate that all of the council members participated in the vote and none stood against the motion. The motion was carried.

Many of the council minutes dating back to the park’s conception in 2015 reference specific allocations of funds from Manitoba Hydro’s Community Development Initiative (CDI), from the municipality, and from private donations. These minutes indicate the full disclosure of funding to council as a whole. 

As to the conflict-of-interest allegations against Hunt, while she admits that she lives in the development where the park is located, she insists that she cast her vote with the entire municipality in mind.

According to Hunt, a conditional use permit for a park isn’t something council has deemed necessary in the past. Once the resident’s complaint surfaced, she sought advice from the municipal lawyer, who advised council to make an exception in this case and hold a conditional use hearing, giving the community an opportunity to respond. 

“[For] a black-and-white thinker [it’s], ‘This is what the letter of the law is, this is what we have to do,’” says Hunt. “Municipal law doesn’t work that way. There’s a lot of ‘shoulds’ and ‘coulds’ and ‘mays.’ It’s broad because every situation is unique. If every decision was the same, you wouldn’t need a council.”

Nearly 100 residents showed up for the meeting on April 19 where the permit was discussed. The homeowner who originally filed the complaint did not attend the meeting or issue a formal complaint in writing. There were no objections from the crowd gathered in the standing-room-only meeting.

Sue Carriere, a representative for the Garden Ridge Greenspace Committee, made a presentation at that meeting. 

“The two lots are zoned Residential General, just like every other greenspace in the RM,” Carriere’s statement says. “The same [stands true] for the other outdoor rinks in the RM. Grande Pointe and Ste. Agathe do not have conditional use permits. Clearly, whether a permit is required or not, the RM has never enforced that. We’re in the same boat as other greenspaces and rinks in the RM… [We] understand that there is some opposition to our park, based mostly on noise, more specifically the noise created by the boards that surround our multi-use pad.”

The outdoor multi-use pad, erected in the fall of 2016 as part of the park’s second phase, was always intended as a four-season play area. The committee made a recommendation to council to allow them to introduce boards around the concrete pad to provide an element of safety, preventing children from chasing balls and pucks into street traffic. These boards would also aid in damage-prevention to neighbouring property. According to
Hunt, the second phase also included a six-foot fence and a closer look at noise reduction options. These were slated to begin in spring of 2017. 

Hunt wants to make it clear that on-council bullying and belligerent behaviour were the sole reasons she chose to step down. Many were witness to Councillor Dumaine’s use of inappropriate language around the council table at the April 19 public meeting. That same behaviour, she says, had been directed at other councillors, staff, and ratepayers over the years. 

According to a May 2012 article in the Dawson Trail Dispatch, Dumaine was required to appear before a provincial court for uttering a death threat to a staff member of Ritchot’s Public Works Department. He was ordered to pay a fine and issue an apology to the accuser.

“In any workplace, there is a need for respectful workplace policy,” says Hunt. “How are we going to get people to run? If you want people to step up to the plate, you have an obligation to protect them and right now there is no way to protect them. Sometimes you have to take a hard line and make a negative impact in the short-term that will make a positive impact in the long-term. I think that this is [not only] going to benefit us as a municipality, but other municipalities and the province.”

Hunt has now formally decided to re-run for the position of Ritchot mayor. 

“We are going to be getting back into a very heavy work period and there’s been a lot of things halfway through,” says Hunt. “You need someone with experience leading people. There’s a huge learning curve to being mayor. I have that history, so we can kind of pick up and move as seamlessly as possible.”

She concludes that, whether she wins the seat back or not, she feels she’s won. The conversation and dialogue on workplace respect and safety has begun. 

The office of the Honourable Eileen Clark, Minister of Indigenous and Municipal Affairs, responded to The Citizen’s request for comment.

“A Workplace Health and Safety Harassment Resolution is to be discussed at the upcoming local AMM (Association of Manitoba Municipalities) district meeting,” reads a statement from Clark’s office. “We are interested in exploring how we can work together with AMM on this issue. Those discussions are ongoing. The situation in Ritchot triggered action, by way of The Municipal Act, which puts the decision about the future makeup of council into the hands of its constituents. Letting the residents of Ritchot decide who should lead their community is the right thing to do.”

Jeannot Robert
Resigned councillor Jeannot Robert shares Hunt’s sentiments and is hopeful that his decision to step away from council will bring about positive change. 

“I would like to make it perfectly clear that the only reason I resigned from council was due to the abuse by some councillors towards our mayor,” says Robert in a recent press release. “It was horrific and degrading to our Ms. Hunt and for all women. No woman in public office should be subject to such vulgar language as witnessed by so many at a public hearing. Some have lost the vision as to why we serve on council. Personal agendas and character bashing have no place at the table. We are there for our ratepayers.”

In an interview with The Citizen, Robert says that he sat beside Dumaine at the final public council meeting when the vulgar comments were directed at Hunt. He says that, had he not supported her by stepping down, he would have felt like he was supporting the councillor’s behaviour.

Robert is no stranger to Ritchot politics and land permit requirements. Now a semi-retired land developer and project manager in Ste. Agathe, he began his work with the municipality as the Water and Waste Water Superintendent in 1978. He has been involved with the municipality in one aspect or another ever since.

Regardless of any accusations made to date, he maintains that there was no foul play involved with the Garden Ridge Park and that absolute transparency was present throughout the process. He indicates that it was not an uncommon occurrence on council in recent years for unanimity to be expressed around the board table during private sessions, only to devolve into opposition in public a few days later. 

Though he benefited in no way from the Garden Ridge Park, he was in favour of the decisions made on the community’s behalf. As to allegations regarding improper protocols with conditional use permits, he says it is not a legal requirement.

“We have conditional use options, but it is a tool that we can use, not a by-law,” says Robert. “No one pair of shoes fits all.”

In his press release, Robert says that he continues to stand by his decisions made on council and had been quick to refer to information and recommendations from the municipal legal counsel during his term.

“We are there as servants to our public needs and wishes and not for personal vendettas,” his statement reads. “Some have lost sight that by-laws, conditional uses, and variations are guidelines that we use for decision-making and that we have to use our judgement in many cases to advance projects. Otherwise, why are we there?”

He advises voters to refer to public council minutes on the municipality’s website, specifically resolutions #2015-01-11 and #2016-10-17, indicating how funds were to be allocated to the park. He says that the Garden Ridge Greenspace Committee did a great job of polling the public for their desires, informing them of the process, and encouraging residents to participate in fundraising efforts.

“Our mayor, Jackie Hunt, is extremely dedicated to the RM as a whole and has worked persistently in the many projects and developments through the last seven years,” Robert’s statement concludes. 

Upon encouragement from residents within his ward, Robert has decided to allow his name to stand for the upcoming July by-election. By virtue of being the only candidate in the running, he will win his seat by acclamation.

“I want to state that I support our Ms. Hunt 100 percent and hope that if we are re-elected I can continue to work with her leading council,” says Robert. “We have many projects to finalize in our remaining term and need a leader with vision and stability.”

Ronald Mamchuk
Mamchuk also stands by his original decision, although he regrets that it ended the way it did.

“Resigning was not something that I wanted or planned to do, but I felt that it was the right decision in the circumstances,” he wrote in a press release. “I fully support Mayor Jackie Hunt and Deputy Mayor/Councillor Jeannot Robert’s decision to resign as the environment in which we were working became toxic and I believed that there was no other option other than submitting my own resignation.” 

In conversation with The Citizen, he agrees that this council struggled from the beginning. He believes a personality clash was likely at the core of the problems. Council, he says, had become known to the public as the “three-to-two council” due to their regularly occurring vote split.

In Mamchuk’s opinion, animosity from the other two councillors probably stems in part from what they felt was an inequality in fiscal spending between communities in the municipality, deeming it necessary to demonstrate absolute equality at all times. But that’s not how it works, he says, stating that communities will have different needs at different times and some may grow at a more rapid rate than others. 

As for the public letters from Webb and Dumaine, Mamchuk says he was shocked by the allegations, as they had never come to light while council was still performing its duties.

“They voted on the very things that they [accused us later of hiding], and so that’s why I can’t see how it [came to this],” says Mamchuk. “Why would they vote on it and then six months later come back and say, ‘That’s not right’? To me, if there’s an issue, act at the time, not after the fact.”

Regarding Garden Ridge Park, Mamchuk is confident that council and the park committee did everything possible to create public awareness and later appease the homeowner who claimed the rink was too noisy. 

“The municipality and the Garden Ridge committee were so obliging to him and tried to work with him,” Mamchuk says. “I understand that he works shift work. I’ve worked shift work too. But I’m not going to blame my neighbour for cutting grass at 3:00 in the afternoon. You’ve just got to adapt.”

Mamchuk has also placed his name in the ring for re-election.

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