Parrsboro Radio Society, the road to legal defeat
We have a very unfortunate situation here where there appear to be…two factions in the Parrsboro Radio Society, which is, I’m not familiar with it being from Halifax, but I’m sure it’s a great little community institution and it’s unfortunate to see two groups running a good community institution like that come up against each other in this fashion — Mr. Justice Robert Wright, Nova Scotia Supreme Court, Amherst, February 18, 2013
by Bruce Wark
July 19, 2012 was a fateful day for the Parrsboro Radio Society (PRS), the non-profit group that operates CiCR, a small community station that sometimes bills itself as “the voice of the Minas Basin.” On that sunny, summer morning, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Nick Scaravelli was setting dates for a lawsuit that pitted the PRS Board, of which I was then a member, against a rival group seeking access to CiCR’s financial records as well as minutes of its Board of Directors meetings. The rival group consisted of Sarah Hartman, Carrie Goodwin, Saundra Spence and George Spence.
Judge Scaravelli looked down from his bench into the cavernous courtroom and asked PRS lawyer Melissa MacAdam why the four couldn’t see the documents. MacAdam replied that the people seeking them didn’t have standing. She meant that they were not members of the PRS. Three of them had actually been expelled by its Board of Directors six months before. Under PRS bylaws, members have the right to see books and minutes, but non-members don’t.
The courtroom exchange was a turning point in a fight for control of the radio station that had begun more than a year earlier in March 2011, when the small group running the station began to split into two rival factions. Eventually the factions formed their own Boards of Directors, each claiming to be the “real” Board.
The exchange between Judge Scaravelli and lawyer MacAdam was a turning point because it showed that the lawsuit would hinge on the issue of whether the PRS Board of Directors (Board A) acted according to proper procedures on January 20, 2012 when it expelled members of the rival Board of Directors (Board B), elected on November 4, 2011. In other words, Robert Wright, the judge who eventually heard the case, would have to decide whether what he called the “Hartman-Spence group” were still members of the PRS and therefore, entitled to view the books and minutes. It also meant that the judge would not need to weigh other factors, including a controversial visit to the radio station by members of Board B.
That visit happened on December 9, 2011, a cold wintry day. CiCR station manager Ross Robinson had left town for a few hours when Don Jewers, Chair of Board A answered a knock at the station’s door. Jewers opened it to find an RCMP officer accompanied by six members of the rival group.
In a later statement, Jewers wrote: “Although they did not show me a court order or any other legal papers, the police said I had to let them in and that since I was clearly upset, it would be better if I left the premises which I did. They then gained access to all of the files, books and records at the radio station. When we returned after the station’s Christmas dinner that evening, we noticed that the locks had been changed at the radio station and that financial records, approximately $1,900 in cheques, $100 in cash and an $800 digital recorder had been taken.” (Three days later, the RCMP confiscated the documents, cheques, cash and recorder and moved them to their detachment in Parrsboro.)
As the conflict deepened, the Don Jewers group took a number of steps against its rivals. The steps included repeatedly broadcasting the names of those who had entered the station; obtaining restraining orders to prohibit further visits; and, expelling members of the rival Board from membership in the PRS.
Judge Wright focuses on fairness
In court, on February 18, Judge Wright ruled that those expulsions were not proper under PRS bylaws because the members were not given notice of the meeting to expel them and therefore, had no opportunity to defend themselves. Earlier, he made a crucial ruling when Board member Alexander Lich, who was presenting the PRS case, conferred with station manager Ross Robinson and then tried to explain the reason for the expulsions:
“Your Honor, I just conferred with Mr. Robinson,” Lich said, “and he told me that the action to remove those members from the Society was because they illegally entered the Society office and took files and documents and other things from the Society.”
“We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves with that,” Judge Wright replied. “The threshold issue that I have to decide today is whether or not the memberships of these four persons was validly terminated on January 20th, 2012.” He added: “It seems to me that this is boiling down to a very focused legal question.”
When the issue of why PRS issued the expulsions came up a second time, Judge Wright was even clearer when he told Lich that, “it’s not for the court to make a decision as to whether the membership termination was justified, that’s not before me, simply the issue before me is whether or not the termination was carried out in accordance with the bylaws and the rules of natural justice and procedural fairness.”
Later, Judge Wright read aloud the PRS bylaw governing expulsions:
“Membership in the Society shall cease if by a vote of the majority of the members of the Society or a majority vote of the directors of the Society at a meeting duly called (and here’s the key part) and for which notice of the proposed action has been given, the member’s membership in the Society has been terminated.
“That clearly requires a member to be given notice of the planned action to terminate their membership,” he added. “It’s as plain as day. Not only is it a requirement of the bylaw, but to have acted in the manner that the directors acted on January 20th, was also a breach of the common law duty of procedural fairness.”
The PRS must now provide the books and minutes to the Hartman-Spence group and treat them as members in good standing at future meetings. An Annual General Meeting of the Parrsboro Radio Society has been called for April 6, 2013. What may happen there is anyone’s guess.