Coun. Bruce MacDougall tends not to lose sleep over the city issues that he and his fellow councillors are faced with.
"But I did over this one," he said. "It's been a very trying time."
He was referring to the report last July that Dixie Lee, a fried chicken restaurant owned by Mayor Basil Stewart and his son in Summerside, had accumulated over $40,000 in unpaid electric bills and about $1,300 in unpaid water and sewer bills while still operating.
After consulting city staff, management, and third-party professionals, Summerside's eight councillors had unanimously decided to make a public statement on the issue near the end of their regular council meeting at city hall on Sept. 21.
"As a result of recent media reports regarding arrears in utility bills, members of council have been barraged with complaints and inquiries," Coun. Brian McFeely said on behalf of all councillors. "The circumstances currently being confronted by city council are both unique and embarrassing."
According to the statement, councillors feel it critical that all utility bill arrears owed to the city be addressed in a consistent manner, and in such a way that also protects the account holder's privacy.
Stewart apologized to the public for his affiliation with the restaurant's arrears, and to council for having to deal with the aftermath.
"But I didn't do anything wrong. I will take that to the grave with me," he said.
He noted that a few years ago and around the time the arrears were accumulating, Dixie Lee was required to make a multiplier payment which the city later informed the restaurant was a mistake.
"And (my son) wanted that to go towards the bill," he said.
Stewart, who's acted as mayor of Summerside on and off since 1985 and is only a part-owner of the restaurant, wasn't the city's mayor at the time that happened. Since July the outstanding payments have mostly been paid off, he said.
He also noted that the city may be requested to make an apology itself on the breach in privacy for Dixie Lee's account information, he said. "About 6,000 plus customers and only one was talked about publicly."
Coun. Justin Doiron highlighted that council doesn't know whether the individual or group who leaked Dixie Lee's information to the media works for the city or had access to the information through other means.
After both the statement and apology, many councillors shared some of their own personal thoughts on the matter - Coun. Cory Snow's were frank and often interjected by Stewart.
"I'm tired of putting up with this for the last three months," Snow said. "(And) I'm a little bit disappointed in the apology."
He argued that the multiplier payment - which chief administrative officer Rob Philpott explained is an adjustment made for larger energy consumers such as businesses to reflect what their electric meters can't measure - has nothing to do with the total cost of the arrears.
"It should have been applied to the account, was applied to the account, was paid, and then arrears piled up after that," he said.
Other councillors expressed disappointment toward the awkward situation it put them in when responding to residents, as some didn't know about the arrears until July. Some desired closure on the matter so they could start focusing their attention elsewhere.
"It's taken up so much of council's time that we should have been working with our residents. And that's the part that really bothers me," Coun. Carrie Adams said.
Stewart plans to continue working hard for the city and also wants to move past this issue, considering Summerside's ongoing growth and the big projects that it has in store.
It hasn't been easy dealing with this controversy over the past few months, he said.
"But I've never ran away from anything in my life - and I never will," Stewart said. "I ain't made that way."
Summerside's councillors shared six points in response to resident's complaints and inquiries.
- All members of council have met with Mayor Basil Stewart and requested he apologize for his role in the controversy.
- Council is taking steps to amend the city's code of conduct policy to state that any council member in arrears should be suspended until the account in question is paid in full.
- The city's robust collection policy will be amended so that the city's total arrears must be reported in the finance chair's monthly report during council's regular meetings. Efforts to collect arrears will be reported on a quarterly basis.
- Council has determined that the city's code of conduct policy doesn't provide adequate consequence as it relates to the protection of private information. All councillors privy to confidential information must sign agreements to help prevent breaches.
- The individual(s) responsible for leaking Dixie Lee's account information should be held accountable. Council will work closely with the provincial privacy commissioner to conduct an independent investigation.
- Council will review its communication protocol and make necessary amendments if needed to determine what and how information is released to the public and the media on individuals and organizations doing business with the city.
Daniel Brown is a local journalism initiative reporter, a position funded by the federal government.