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N.B. municipality spent $19K to investigate councillor over giant bird statue


A New Brunswick town councillor says the release of an investigation into her efforts to bring a giant bird sculpture to the community is a "victory" — even though it led to sanctions against her last fall.

Tantramar Coun. Debbie Wiggins-Colwell was among those who sought the public release of a third-party report that cost the municipality more than $19,000 and concluded she had violated municipal codes of conduct.

The investigation conducted last October found that Wiggins-Colwell disrupted the pecking order by restoring a giant sandpiper statue — known as Shep — to its perch without going through established procedures.

N.B.-based Montana Consulting group billed the municipality $19,167.11 for the investigation.

Wiggins-Colwell's violations included failure to respect the decision-making process and follow policies, procedures and bylaws; inability to have respectful interactions with councillors, staff and the public; and improper use of influence and of municipal assets and services. As a result, Wiggins-Colwell agreed last November to attend training to better understand her roles and responsibilities as an elected official.

Wiggins-Colwell said in an interview that the report shows how minor her transgressions were and how "stupid" it was that the municipality spent that kind of money to cast her as a villain, even though she obtained Shep "for nothing." The sculpture, which cost $9,300, was paid for by a non-profit organization, the Fundy Biosphere Region.

"If they were to just say at the beginning, 'Look, (we can) have this put up for free and it will help tourism in the little village. I think that's what we should go for.' But nope, they didn't want to do that," she said.

Kara Becker, the former deputy mayor of Dorchester, N.B. — the village where Shep stands and that became part of Tantramar in January 2023 — called the $19,000 investigation "a grand inquisition" and an embarrassment for the municipality.

Tantramar Mayor Andrew Black said the municipality responded to a complaint against Wiggins-Colwell as required by its bylaws. "The investigation happened, and from that, council made a decision on sanctions," he said in an email, declining further comment.

Many residents of Dorchester were delighted to see the return of the bird statue named after nearby Shepody Bay, after rotting damaged its previous iteration. But Tantramar officials said the statue was reinstalled on municipally owned land without permission. The investigation into Wiggins-Colwell began after two unidentified people complained about her actions last March.

The resulting report found that she violated the municipality's code of conduct by taking on the Shep replacement project without "respecting the democratic decision-making process and the separation of roles and responsibilities between council and administration."

Once the 2.4-metre-high bird was back on its pedestal in April, council voted to leave it in place. Its beak points toward the mudflats of the Bay of Fundy, where pint-sized semipalmated sandpipers mass in late July on their way from the Arctic to South America.

Wiggins-Colwell said the statue puts Dorchester in the same league as other New Brunswick communities with larger-than-life roadside monuments, including Blowhard the Bony Horse in Cardwell, Lady Potato in Grand Falls, a giant axe in Nackawic, a lobster in Shediac, and Buttercup the Cow and Daisy the Calf in Sussex.

"I want to be open and transparent," she said. "I don't want to hide ... what I did was I got this sandpiper for nothing. And (the statue) brings a lot into our little town."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2024.

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