A new council has been elected and the Municipality of the County of Richmond is at a pivotal chapter in its history.
With the results of a forensic audit now in the hands of elected officials and staff, and the results of an investigation by the Ombudsman’s Office on the way, this is a precarious moment for Richmond County, coming on the heels of a municipal campaign which rivaled the presidential election south of the border in shocking headlines and ugly politics.
Only two weeks before election day, the leaked draft report of ombudsmans’ investigation found there was a culture of entitlement within the municipality where financial rules were either inconsistently applied or made up on the fly.
Days later, the Department of Municipal Affairs said it was closely reviewing the findings, and the RCMP confirmed it is investigating Richmond’s financial situation. Around that same time, Richmond CAO Warren Olsen announced he was taking a leave for treatment of substance abuse.
As if that wasn’t enough for voters to digest, days before voting day, former warden Steve Sampson filed a libel suit with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia identifying councillor Gilbert Boucher and Richmond County’s former director of tourism and economic development, Jeff Stanley, among those in a Facebook group accused of posting false and defamatory comments about Richmond County officials.
This was after a winter of naked animosity kicked-off by a failed motion for a forensic audit of the finances of staff and councillors, culminating in the formation of the aforementioned Facebook group.
Just before the forensic audit was finally approved, last April, Sampson claimed he was the target of an extortion attempt. The former warden said recently that he turned over the names of those connected to the Facebook group to the RCMP to aid in their blackmail probe.
This past year of unbridled malice was actually the manifestation of a poisonous atmosphere on council which started during the divisive debate and unsuccessful challenge of a Utility and Review Board order to reduce council size from 10 to 5 municipal districts.
For anyone keeping score; that is two RCMP investigations, one leave of absence, one libel suit, three forensic audits, and one failed court challenge.
Richmond officials, past present, have spent an inordinate amount of time on-line, in court and dealing with law enforcement and auditors, and its time they return to council chambers and get to work.
And there is a lot of work to do.
One of the biggest questions surrounds the future of the embattled CAO whose practices were red-flagged by auditors and the ombudsman and whose performance was criticized by some staff, councillors and residents.
The method for electing the head of the municipality is another topic for discussion. Will council decide to maintain the current system for electing the warden or will it leave the choice up to voters? And, will this debate also polarize council into dysfunction?
One of the largest tasks before the newly elected body involves the overall financial picture.
Armed with the findings of the forensic audits and ombudsmans’ investigation, Richmond County now has more than enough information to identify the problems and come up with solutions.
But along with pressure on the bottom line from legal bills, the forensic audits and possible settlements with staff, Richmond County also has fewer ratepayers, less tax revenue from the paper mill, and must continue funding essential infrastructure and services. Then there are significant projects and programs in and around the municipality badly in need of stable and sustainable funding levels.
Perhaps the most important agenda item for this new term is to restore public confidence in council’s ability to govern and oversee public money.
But this new council will only be able to point fingers at former officials and elected members for so long before they will have to take responsibility. And this time around, the political games of the past year will not fly.
The people Richmond County want and need results from this new council.