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Tensions flare in Pouce Coupe council dispute

Residents critical of village council and staff say RCMP asked them to remove an image of vehicles parked outside a meeting from a Facebook group

Two people behind a Facebook group critical of the mayor and council in Pouce Coupe say they were contacted by RCMP earlier this month after posting a photo of vehicles outside the municipal office.

On June 6, Carolyn Merrick said she received a call from a Dawson Creek RCMP officer regarding a photo she posted to a civic politics Facebook group she created called Nothing But the Facts Pouce. The image, taken on the evening of June 4, showed cars and trucks parked outside the Village of Pouce Coupe office. In the photo supplied to Alaska Highway News by Merrick, the license plates were not legible.

Merrick claims the officer told her the images could be considered harassment.

She has since removed the photo.

It is the latest in a dispute between the mayor and a former councillor that has dogged the village of 750 since the November 2014 election.

Merrick wondered whether the vehicles parked outside the office were evidence of a council meeting that had not been advertised to the public.

She and several other residents say they're working to hold elected officials to account on what they allege are transparency issues in the village. But the village mayor and at least one other councillor believe some residents have crossed a line with their treatment of council members and municipal staff.

Dawson Creek Sgt. Ed Reinink said he could not speak specifically about the alleged complaint, but confirmed that the RCMP has been in touch with several people involved in the dispute.

"I just know that currently the RCMP does have, has had contact with people who had some concerns about mayor and council, and vice versa," he said last week.

Pouce Coupe Mayor William Plowright said the village's recreation committee met June 4. The meeting was not listed online, but Dermod Travis of the government watchdog group Integrity B.C. said councils are obligated to advertise such meetings.

Plowright said the matter has been turned over to the RCMP, but said he felt it was "not right" for "somebody to go and take pictures of all the licence plates."

Another poster on the site, Lorraine Michetti, said she was also contacted by RCMP. Both believe another Pouce Coupe resident made the complaint — not a councillor or a village staffer.

"I thought 'well holy cow,' we haven't done anything wrong," she said. "It's a public place, there are no licence plates visible, and they said 'it's still unethical to have those pictures there.'"


A bitter past

The issues in Pouce Coupe stretch back to at least December, when newly elected councillor Gordon "Red" Merrick (Carolyn Merrick's husband) resigned his seat over a dispute with Plowright. In a letter to the councillor, Plowright said there were "concerns with [Merrick's] behaviour" when he served on a previous council. Merrick had previously resigned in protest after a 2013 incident.

"You are not permitted to harass or act inappropriately towards public works or administration staff," Plowright wrote in the Nov. 19 letter, which Merrick shared with Alaska Highway News at the time. "As well, you cannot make public negative comments about any staff member."

Merrick resigned a second time, calling the situation a "train wreck in the making." In December, he told Alaska Highway News he intended to take Plowright's letter to the RCMP, claiming it was "an attempt at intimidation."

Barb Smith, a former mayor who replaced Merrick on council after a byelection, said previous councils "never had this dysfunction."

"[Councillors ask] 'are you in their camp?'" she said. "There is no camp. We're all working towards making Pouce better. I'm struggling here because I've never seen [council] this dysfunctional."



Among the issues are access to the village's balance sheet.

On Jan. 19, resident Dianna Chorney presented a petition with around 100 signatures asking for access to the village's accounts payable. The Merricks, Michetti and others allege the village is not being open about how it spends money. Smith also said she hasn't been satisfied with the level of detail on the reports she's seen.

However, village officials say they have simply moved to a quarterly accounting system, ending the practice of reporting the village's balances at every meeting. In a letter sent to residents, Chief Administrative Officer Carol Bishop wrote the old system, "a list of cheques with no reference to the current budget," made it difficult to gauge the village's finances. (The new system is similar to how Dawson Creek reports its accounts.)

In February, the council passed a bylaw cancelling question period, the part of a council meeting where citizens are able to ask elected officials for information. Anyone with questions now must sign up as an official delegation to council.

"Councillor [Colleen] Evans feels council is being harassed. Mayor Plowright added that he is happy that residents are taking an interest in their community, but some residents are being rude," minutes from a Jan. 7 meeting read.

Plowright said the question periods "were being taken far beyond the realm of reality."

"We have a group of people who aren't satisfied with the council and staff we have, and you're never going to satisfy them," he said.

Smith said she saw "nothing wrong with what Lorraine and Carolyn are doing." 

"We want to know where [the village] are spending our money," she said. "Every other municipality gives it out. I as a member of council haven't seen accounts

"[Lorraine and Carolyn] may not always do it in a friendly manner, but it's been going on so long and you can do friendly for so long."