The newly elected warden and council for the Municipality of Annapolis have voted to fire its Chief Administrative Officer John Ferguson as well as its lawyer, Bruce Gillis.
The motions received unanimous consent during an in-camera portion of a regular council meeting held via Zoom last Tuesday. Nobody is talking about the reasons for the dismissals but this much we know, mostly from digging and earlier reporting by Brian Flinn with allnovascotia.com.
Ferguson, who served as the Annapolis municipality’s CAO since 2013, has supported a plan by a private developer from Saint John, New Brunswick to open a franchise of the Gordonstoun boarding school in Scotland where Prince Charles and his father Prince Philip attended. (You may have noticed the school on Netflix as part of The Crown series)
It’s a $62-million project. The previous warden, Tim Habiniski, and Premier Stephen McNeil, who represents Annapolis in the legislature, have both toured the Scottish private school in the lead-up to a decision by the former municipal council to loan $7.2 million to Ed Farren of E.A. Farren Ltd.
Farren has the rights to the Gordonstoun Nova Scotia franchise. He is a retired senior civil servant with the City of Saint John who knew former CAO John Ferguson during Ferguson’s years as a former Saint John city councillor. Ferguson later moved to St. Stephen, New Brunswick to become the town manager there. Farren doesn’t appear to have any additional financial backers other than his sister Marian. According to court documents obtained by Flinn, the Farrens’ Saint John home was used as collateral for a $1.6 million advance on the loan from Annapolis taxpayers. Turns out there is a lien on the house because the Farrens owed about $63,000 to the banks.
The new warden for Annapolis County is retired media/defamation lawyer Alan Parish who now lives in Clarence. He and the majority of councillors elected on November 21 ran on a platform promising greater transparency and less secrecy after learning about the significant financial commitment to the Gordonstoun project made by the previous council. A motion was passed in open session Tuesday demanding all previous agreements between the Municipality of Annapolis and Gordonstoun Nova Scotia be handed over.
This became necessary after a series of meetings called by the previous municipal council after the November 21 election that saw warden Tim Habinski and most of the old guard voted out. Prior to the swearing in of the new council December 10, council was reported to have approved a 99-year lease for Gordonstoun Nova Scotia on property the municipality purchased from the province earlier in the year. This was carried out under lawyer Bruce Gillis’ watch.
Earlier in the year, the Municipality of Annapolis had paid $600,000 for the former Upper Clements theme park, which included some 225 acres it hoped would become the future home of the first Gordonstoun school in North America.
Since the Gordonstoun lease decision was made, there has been a lot of legal skirmishing about whether those post-election meetings went beyond what is allowed under the Municipal Governance Act. We’ll leave that to the legal beagles to sort out. At CAO Ferguson’s last council appearance on December 15, he disputed the authority of the new council to request an outside legal opinion from the firm Cox & Palmer with respect to certain “personnel matters.”
What happens next will be interesting. The new council has passed a motion to hire an external auditor to conduct a feasibility study on the Gordonstoun project. They need to know what agreements have been previously signed and if they are legally binding.
Lawyer Bruce Gillis, by the way, has had the county as a client for most of the past 45 years. Meanwhile, Cox & Palmer will act as temporary solicitors for the municipality and deputy CAO Dawn Campbell* will take on the job of acting CAO.
* As originally published, this article incorrectly identified Campbell’s title.