The recent debate in Richmond County whether the municipality should switch to a mayor-at-large elected by all voters, versus retaining the status-quo has, so far, been constructive.
This is in stark contrast to the tumult of the past two months when the former Chief Administrative Officer was terminated, the warden stepped down and residents sought the dissolution of the elected body, as well as special elections, by the provincial government.
While this has not fully subsided, the recent controversy actually paled in comparison to what erupted more than three years ago over spending practices by municipal officials, which came as the municipality was hotly debating the composition and number of municipal districts, as well as the possibility of establishing a mayoral system.
During the regular monthly meeting of Richmond Municipal Council on May 27 in Arichat, Chief Administrative Officer Don Marchand told council it has to proceed with any changes no less than nine months before regular municipal elections in October 2020. Marchand told council any amendments would have to be introduced at the December, 2019 monthly meeting and ratified prior to the January, 2020 regular meeting.
Marchand cautioned that once made, the decision to move to a mayoral system cannot be changed.
There is no requirement to forward any applications to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board to make this change, the CAO pointed out, but an application to the board would be necessary if there are any changes to current electoral boundaries.
Although there are not many differences between the duties of a mayor versus that of a warden, Marchand said the biggest change is in how mayors are elected by the whole municipal unit and there are different requirements in the case of resignation.
As far as costs, the CAO told council it would be in the ballpark of $38,676, including a stipend increase of $25,023, pension contributions would be increased by $3,127, insurance would be $5,700, CPP contributions would be $1,276, there is a technology allowance of $1,200, and estimated annual expenses are around $3,500, plus $500 for stationary costs. The figure does not factor in a one-time laptop and printer cost of $1,800.
Marchand suggested council consider a public consultation process while they investigate how to proceed.
District 5 councillor Jason MacLean said an “overwhelming majority” of those who gave their opinions during the public consultation process into the municipality’s strategic plan supported a mayoral system. But considering that only 300 residents of the approximately 8,900 who live in the municipality registered their opinions, he said the final decision should rest with the general public. However, he does not support a plebiscite.
Richmond County’s strategic plan includes the results of a survey completed by residents last year in which 76.62 per cent of respondents support a mayoral system to govern the municipality, while only 23.38 per cent favour the current warden system.
According to the strategic plan document, “an overwhelming majority” of others who attended the planning sessions also stated their preference was to move to a system to elect a mayor.
When the results of the survey were first discussed last winter, MacLean said it highlighted a consensus among residents. He explained in January that instead of voting for a municipal councillor only, voters across the county would also be asked to vote for a mayor.
During the May 27 meeting, District 1 councillor James Goyetche recalled that during the municipality’s electoral boundary review process in 2015, feedback at public meetings was clearly in favour of a mayoralty.
As a result of that support, on February 1, 2016, councillors voted 4-3 in favour of discarding the system of selecting a warden from within council ranks to allowing Richmond County residents to select a mayor-at-large. However, provincial officials confirmed the following day that the municipality missed a January 15 deadline to apply for such a shift in council’s governance model.
On May 27, Goyetche disagreed with MacLean over the small size of opinions gathered last year, arguing that public opinion firms frequently take a random sample of the overall population. But from what he’s seen, a majority of Richmond County residents want a mayoral system.
District 4 councillor Gilbert Boucher supports a plebiscite, reasoning it would provide a more accurate count since not enough people have registered their opinions.
Deputy Warden Alvin Martell said he agrees with MacLean that public forums are necessary to truly know what taxpayers want but he later noted that under Section 15 of the Municipal Government Act, mayors have no more authority than wardens.
Warden Brian Marchand said he is concerned about the extra costs in having a mayor. With the one-time costs, he noted that the extra expense of a mayor goes up to $40,000 in the first year. The warden also pointed out that having an even number can lead to tie votes.
When the results of the strategic plan’s survey were first discussed in January, Marchand said a small number of residents gave their opinion, and he felt the public did not have sufficient information to make an informed decision.
After discussing how to reach out to the public to provide them with the resources they need to make fully informed decisions, on May 27, the warden recommended posting information on the municipal Web site, he promised to have more discussions with council, and he asked staff to plan the public consultation process.
Given the clear public support expressed in the survey, and despite the fact the municipality tried unsuccessfully in 2016 to convert to a mayoralty, among other reasons, this paper has taken the position that converting to a mayor-at-large would be in the best interests of Richmond County. But this issue will ultimately be decided by the people and their representatives, and that is how it should be.
What is most encouraging is that despite the varied opinions, the debate has remained civil in tone; those disagreeing are doing so respectfully, no one is trying to shut-down or dominate the discussion, and overall, the debate has been a productive exchange of opinions, ideas and information.
If this spirit of healthy discourse can continue during the public consultation process and into council’s final vote, it will have created the environment to reach a reasoned conclusion.
Then the final decision will be a true reflection of public will and one that everyone can live with.