ST. JOHN’S, NL — The two-day hearing on Frank Butt’s controversial removal from Carbonear council came to an end Friday, with lawyers representing the former mayor and the municipality making final arguments in court.
The two sides had very different takes on the chain of events leading up to council’s decision at a Dec. 12, 2017 meeting to vacate Butt’s position. That move came in response to an anonymous letter alleging Butt, the town’s mayor, was in conflict of interest back in May of 2014 when he introduced and voted on a motion to tear down a derelict commercial property on Water Street, located a short distance from a business he owned. The letter suggested monetary gain was at stake.
The building, known as the former Easy Save property at 234 Water Street, was eventually torn down and converted into a parking lot after a change in ownership.
John Babb, representing Butt, contended his client did not receive a fair hearing at any point prior to the Dec. 12 vote. He spoke at length about privileged meetings held Nov. 22 and Dec. 6. Prior to the latter meeting, it was his understanding council would decide whether the conflict of interest allegation would be summarily dismissed. If not, he was prepared to set a date for a proper hearing where evidence could be presented and Babb could conduct cross examinations.
Ultimately, fellow council members indicated the matter would not be set aside.
“I don’t think we’ve been given a reasonable opportunity to defend it,” Babb said with respect to the allegation against Butt.
Babb also alleged bias was shown at the meeting. Drawing upon a transcript of the meeting entered as evidence in an affidavit at the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, in St. John’s, Babb noted the chairman for the privileged meeting stated specifically at one point that Butt was in conflict on the 2014 motion. Lawyer Ian Wallace, representing the Town of Carbonear, later said this statement appeared to hint at predetermination rather than bias.
Another issue Babb brought up was a plot plan neither he nor his client saw prior to it being entered as evidence for the court hearing. Towards the end of his submission, Babb said it was Butt’s intent to do something for the community in requesting that the building at 234 Water Street be torn down immediately.
Wallace stated that early on, council members were keenly aware of the fact they could not summarily dismiss the allegation. He indicated the town’s chief administrative officer, Cynthia Davis, brought this up to the former council at a Sept. 18 privileged meeting and another on Oct. 5 attended by the newly-elected council. The latter meeting included some fresh faces who had not previously served on council. Davis’ words were informed by correspondence with the Department of Municipal Affairs.
Speaking to the legal advice the town received from its lawyer, William Finn, Wallace noted Finn advised council it was ultimately their final decision whether or not to view the allegation as a conflict of interest with merit. Wallace added it was incumbent on council to obtain legal advice in such a case.
As for Babb’s concern about the lack of a fair hearing for Butt, Wallace said Butt was presented with this opportunity at the two privileged meetings in November and December — meetings that Babb also attended. He said both meetings were meant to serve as hearings, adding Babb refused to let his client address the matter because he wanted more disclosure. However, Wallace noted the town had already advised Butt and his lawyer multiple times that there was no more relevant information to share.
Justice Robert Stack advised both parties he will render a written decision on the matter. He also asked the lawyers to submit more case law to help aid this task.