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Pouce Coupe councillor refused oath over dispute with mayor

The new council in the Village of Pouce Coupe appears to be off to a rough start.
After refusing to be sworn in on Monday over a dispute with Pouce Coupe's mayor, Gordon Merrick took his oath on Wednesday.

The new council in the Village of Pouce Coupe appears to be off to a rough start.

Before a swearing-in ceremony Monday, newly elected councillor Gordon (Red) Merrick told Alaska Highway News he would not take the oath of office at that time, claiming he received a letter from Mayor William Plowright just hours before that contained statements that were untrue. 

The letter, which Plowright acknowledged he sent, contained a number of statements related to Merrick's previous term on council.

"I did send Mr. Merrick a letter, yes," the mayor told Alaska Highway News, saying the issues were "basically self-explanatory."

On Tuesday, Merrick said he’s “getting legal advice.”

Merrick resigned as councillor in 2013 over a disagreement related to an item discussed in-camera, or privately, at a council meeting.

In the Nov. 19 letter to Merrick, Plowright wrote "there were some concerns with your behaviour, both in meetings and towards staff" during Merrick's previous term.

"I sincerely hope that you have turned over a new leaf; however, I am writing this letter to you to be clear that inappropriate behaviour on the part of councillors will not be tolerated," the mayor wrote.

The letter, a copy of which Merrick provided to the Alaska Highway News, was not written on village of Pouce Coupe letterhead. Merrick said he checked his mail just hours before the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural council meeting.

In the letter, Plowright set rules for Merrick's contact with village staff, and advised him of the laws around in-camera meetings.

The letter says any concerns Merrick wished to bring to staff should go through the mayor, who would forward them to the chief administrative officer, the senior village staffer. (While that tends to be the formal reporting structure in most municipalities, councillors are usually free to talk to department heads.)

"You are not permitted to harass or act inappropriately towards public works or administration staff," the letter goes on. "You are not to approach staff while they are working and make negative comments. This is disruptive to village operations and impacts the ability of our staff to efficiently provide services to our constituents."

On in-camera meetings, Plowright wrote that Merrick is not permitted to talk publicly about private matters.

Local government council meetings are open to the public, but councils will sometimes go in-camera to discuss staffing and human resource issues.

Speaking publicly about in-camera meetings "is a violation of the community charter and disclosure of any person (sic) information is a breach of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and can lead to a trial and conviction," Plowright wrote in the letter. 

Merrick originally resigned after telling council he believed a village employee was "stealing fuel."

He claimed he had "undeniable proof that large amount of fuel had been stolen" by a village employee.

The issue was discussed in-camera, he said. In the letter, Plowright said in-camera  information was "NOT to be shared with anyone outside of Council." 

Merrick claimed he did not discuss the contents of the private meeting publicly. As for his allegations against the staffer, Merrick said "that's my information to deal with how I want. The information from the in-camera meeting I did not reveal."

"I'm not allowed to talk about how council dealt with it, I understand that part," Merrick told the Alaska Highway News. "I'm not happy with how it was dealt with and I resigned over it. I shook everybody's hand and said I can't in all good consciousness be part of this."

"There was a reason I stepped up to be the mayor, and Red Merrick was the reason," Plowright said. "That's all I have say on that."

Larry Fynn was mayor of Pouce Coupe at the time of the alleged fuel incident. Fynn passed away last December, and Plowright filled the mayor's chair after a by-election earlier this year.

Merrick has some history of legal action against the village.

Court records show that in November 2008, Merrick took legal action against the Corporation of the Village of Pouce Coupe. Merrick said that matter was unrelated to his current issue, but did not elaborate.

"At no time did I sue for any amount of money," he said, adding the situation "was resolved years ago. This has nothing to do with that."

As for whether a working relationship with the mayor is possible at this point, he said the situation "will get resolved in the courts.”

He said Plowright’s descriptions of his behaviour towards staff and during in-camera meetings were not accurate.  

Merrick was elected to the five-person council on Nov. 15 with 112 votes – making him the second largest vote-getter in Pouce Coupe.

He was sworn in as councillor Wednesday, two days after his colleagues.