Petrolia’s lawyer says town has “no authority” to return Nicol money for LCCVI scholarships

Lindsay Core with her fellow Nicol Scholars from her graduating year

Another attempt to return money from the Nicol Scholarship to the fund to use for student grants in Petrolia has failed after council heard its lawyer believes the move would be illegal.

The donation to the town has been a contentious topic for the last two years. The fund gives out $10,000 educational scholarships at LCCVI. It also provided $10,000 for repairs at Victoria Hall and $10,000 for repairs at the Petrolia Library. The scholarship fund was intended to last 25 years, but it is now given out money for more than three decades.

But as financial markets changed, the investment fund didn’t grow as much. That meant there were not as many scholarships for students. The fund, which in one good year gave out more than 10 scholarships, would only be able to give out one in 2015.

Then Mayor John McCharles convinced council that it would be a good idea to return one of two $10,000 US grants the town receives so that more scholarships could be given to LCCVI students. That practice continued until the 2018 budget deliberations after the new council, headed by Mayor Brad Loosley were sworn in. The idea was shelved that year.

Councillor Joel Field attempted to have the money designated for Victoria Hall returned to the fund to be used for scholarships again in 2019 but council disagreed. At the time, a survey showed 90 per cent of town residents wanted the money to go to the scholarship fund.

Field tried again Wednesday during budget deliberations. “I just want it to be about the kids, about the scholarships,” said Field.

Councillor Wade Deighton agreed citing tough economic times. “People are going to need to help where they can. And if that means that we can send one kid to school or two kids to school with a little bit of money in their pocket, then so be it,” he said noting the town could find the $10,000 in the budget.

But Mayor Loosley opposed the move saying the town asked the group to show it had made changes to how it operates to save some money and then it would reconsider turning the money back to the scholarship fund. The Nicol Fund has not done that yet.

“If they can continue to pay consultant $800 US to stand there and watch us (deliberate who should get the scholarships) then I don’t think they need the money that bad,” says Loosley.

Clerk Mandi Pearson interjected that the town’s solicitor, Robert Gray, had been asked to give an opinion on whether the town should be turning back the money. “According to Municipal Act, it is not within our mandate to help subsidize, provide scholarships to the youth, people in schools. So he was suggesting that we shouldn’t be doing this,” says CAO Rick Charlebois summarizing Gray’s opinion. “we have no authority to direct funds. as a grant or a loan,” added Pearson who read from the legal opinion.

The legal opinion added if council wanted to give a donation to the fund, it should come from the council donation line of the budget.

Loosley asked for the opinion in May and it was provided at an incamera meeting May 11.

In a news release Friday after 3pm, Loosley is quoted as saying; ““We do what is legally and morally right.  Seeking legal counsel is part of that decision-making process so that we can act accordingly where there is doubt, and where we are looking for ways to do something good for our community within our rights and abilities. 

“Council agrees that there are other ways that our community can support the Nicol Scholarship Fund by donating to the Petrolia Community Fund, or by community members helping to reach out to previous recipients to help build the Fund.”

“The idea comes from the right place, but as a municipal council we will have to look to the community to work together to come up with a way to support this important fund so that is remains available to students for the future.”

While Gray says it is illegal to provide municipal scholarships, both Enniskillen and Dawn-Euphemia provide scholarships to students in their municipalities.

Field says he is disappointed council did not support returning the money again this year so more students could receive scholarships.