By Lethbridge Herald on August 26, 2020.
While having no overall impact on the council vote on the temporary masking bylaw brought in by council on Monday, (which passed 6-3), comments made by Mayor Chris Spearman about a letter read out during debate by Coun. Blaine Hyggen from MLA Nathan Neudorf expressing opposition to the masking bylaw could have implications for local provincial-municipal relations.
While the Neudorf letter was broad in scope, and included information about the medical evidence for the necessity of handwashing in order to make masking effective, as well as expressions of local opposition from some community members, it also stated Neudorf’s personal concerns in passing a bylaw with no thresholds in place as to when such a bylaw should be commenced or ended based on active cases in the community.
“This bylaw proposes an incredible reach into private lives and businesses by the state,” reads the letter at one point, “and will be deemed an incredible overreach, particularly that it is deemed enacted outside of the protection of a state of public health emergency.”
Spearman interpreted this statement, and the overall context of the letter, as a sitting MLA directly attempting to interfere in a municipal vote within a local governance jurisdiction.
“I have served in elected office for 25 years — seven on municipal and 18 on school boards — and never once before did I receive a letter from an MLA telling me how to vote,” said Spearman.
“Last Thursday, we met with our MLA, several of us, the first thing he did was take off his mask,” Spearman later added. “The rest of us wore a mask through the meeting. It’s disappointing. Our premier, you see him in every picture wearing a mask. That’s leadership. Standing up for our community, protecting public health, doing the best we can to protect others, is leadership.”
This statement resulted in a heated exchange on a point of order between Spearman and Hyggen, who emphatically disagreed with the mayor’s categorization of the letter, saying he had been the one to ask MLA Neudorf to read out the letter, not the other way around. Hyggen also outright rejected Spearman’s version of events during the meeting with Neudorf.
Spearman was asked by reporters following this exchange to clarify what he meant by his comments.
“I am surprised,” he said. “In 25 years of elected public service, I have never received a letter from an MLA which I interpreted as telling us as other elected representatives how to vote. That was surprising to me, and I wouldn’t have discussed it (publicly) if Coun. Hyggen hadn’t raised it. Certainly, it was surprising and I didn’t think it was appropriate to use that. The reason that was raised by Coun. Hyggen would appear to be to influence other councillors, and I felt it was not appropriate. So I expressed my disappointment in having received a letter like that.”
Hyggen told The Herald on Wednesday there is nothing inappropriate about receiving letters of concern from local MLAs, noting councillors all received a copy of this letter from Neudorf in advance of the vote, as they had also received at least three letters from MLA Shannon Phillips over the past few months voicing her concerns and speaking up for her constituents on various topics.
“The letter that was sent to us did not give a position,” he said. “It gave us information only. We, on a regular basis, share information with MLA Neudorf and with MLA Phillips, and they share information back with us.
“It was just thoughts to consider, and not once in there did it say, ‘You should vote this way.’ Or encourage you to vote this way. Not one single time.”
Hyggen reaffirmed he and Coun. Ryan Parker both asked Neudorf for permission to read out this letter in open council, feeling it added valuable information to support their opposition to the masking bylaw, and Neudorf had not once advocated they should do so.
“As a matter of fact, Coun. Parker had planned to read it,” he said, “and he finished his debate and didn’t. And since we couldn’t debate again, he said ‘Blaine, will you read this?’ I wasn’t planning on reading it, but I did because I just wanted to make sure it was out there.”
As for the mayor’s claims about Neudorf improperly taking off his mask in front of councillors at a previous meeting, Hyggen called this a “blatant lie” on Spearman’s part.
“A complete, blatant lie,” Hyggen stressed. “When we arrived there at MLA Neudorf’s office, he put us into a larger room, he has a small (meeting) room and larger room, so we could socially distance. He had his mask on, and he asked each and every one of us if it was OK if he removed the mask because he had some who were hard of hearing and we had Coun. Carlson on Zoom. He had asked all of us, and he waited for all of us to answer, then he removed his mask. When we finished the meeting, there was no handshaking or anything, and when we got up his mask went back on.”
Neudorf also felt Spearman had misrepresented what had happened in the meeting.
“I have no objection to wearing a mask if that is required of me,” Neudorf stated. “I have worn a mask, and had the occasion last week to go to the mall a number of times. And I wear a mask at all times. That meeting took place at my office. I wore a mask as I greeted everybody there, and because I have someone very close to me that is hard of hearing, and with my student transport task force have dealt with the community of the deaf, when I do a meeting, in terms of speaking particularly where there is a microphone or electronics involved, I try to take the mask off so people can lip read or hear more clearly what is said. Masks really do muffle that sound.”
Neudorf said he had asked all councillors present and the mayor if it was alright to take off the mask before he began, and then proceeded to do so when he heard no objections.
As for Spearman’s interpretation of his intent in sending the letter to councillors, Neudorf said he was passing on the concerns of local residents who had contacted him and giving food for thought on some of the problems he perceived with the bylaw — just as he has received feedback from individual members of council on provincial policies when they have concerns. He had no intention of telling local councillors how to vote on a city bylaw.
“Unfortunately, I think he (Spearman) misinterpreted very badly,” stated Neudorf, “and to state that point of view further in a later (media) interview was even further damaging to our relationship. I think it was actually a fairly gross misrepresentation of what I had done, and how I had done that. So I am disappointed.”
Those wishing to hear the full letter by MLA Neudorf to council can access the recording on the City of Lethbridge’s city council agendas website at this link: agendas.lethbridge.ca/AgendaOnline/Meetings/ViewMeeting?id=2630&doctype=2.
Hyggen begins his reading of the letter at the three-hour, 43-minute mark.
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