A Saanich woman is launching a legal challenge against the municipality because she says Mayor Richard Atwell didn’t let her speak for her allotted time.
Retired ecologist Lynn Husted says the experience violated her charter right to free expression. She filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court on Friday.
“I’m not a person who is really ‘out there,’ but I feel that it’s really important for people to feel comfortable and respected and not intimidated speaking in a public forum like Saanich council,” Husted said.
The incident occurred at a Nov. 6 council meeting. Husted was speaking as part of citizens’ group Saanich Action for the Environment Safe, about the controversial environmental development permit area bylaw.
In the meeting, Husted began saying council should postpone any decision about the bylaw until the results of a disciplinary hearing against a biologist involved in the debate were issued.
The mayor warned her not to speak about someone’s personal information — Husted responded the disciplinary hearing was publicly posted on a professional college’s website.
She continued speaking, until Coun. Fred Haynes raised a point of order. After some back and forth, Atwell told her she was speaking too far off the agenda.
Members of the public are entitled to three minutes of speaking time, which Husted said she did not receive. The incident spanned five minutes, including when council members spoke.
“I started my presentation and was a third of the way through it. And the mayor interrupted me a couple of times and questioned me and then finally said I couldn’t speak anymore,” Husted said.
That night, council rescinded the bylaw in a 5-4 vote.
Atwell told the Times Colonist he was familiar with the incident, but said he couldn’t comment directly on it until the district had a chance to review the petition, which was filed Friday afternoon.
He said every meeting is governed by the council-proceedings bylaw and begins with notice that is read aloud regarding expectations.
“Saanich has many opportunities for consultation — at council meetings, committee of the whole meetings, numerous public hearings, town hall meetings that take place in the community. So there are a lot of opportunities [to be heard],” he said. “But it’s my job as mayor to make sure the meetings are run properly and fairly for all those who participate.”
He said he values free speech, which is enshrined in the charter, and said the courts have dictated where its limits lie.
Chris Tollefson, executive director of the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation, said the case has implications for democracy and local governance.
“This case is about the need for civility and respect in democratic debate,” said Tollefson, whose firm filed the petition.
“Ms. Husted had something to say on an issue of public importance and she was denied the chance to express herself. We say the charter and basic rules of procedural fairness exist to fix that.”
Tollefson said it was the mayor’s job to balance free expression with maintaining order, but he failed to do so.