Richmond debates mayor versus warden system

ARICHAT: Council will have staff investigate how to engage the public in the debate over a mayor versus a warden system.

During the regular monthly meeting of Richmond Municipal Council last night in Arichat, council debated switching from electing a mayor-at-large, versus maintaining the current warden system.

Chief Administrative Officer Don Marchand told council the Municipal Government Act allows for a warden or mayor to chair council. Currently three district municipalities have a mayor, including the Municipality of the County of Colchester, the Municipality of the County of Kings and the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg, he noted.

The CAO said council has to decide whether 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.

“It’s a binding decision on future councils,” Marchand told council.

There is no requirement to forward any applications to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board to make this change, the CAO pointed out. An application to the board would be necessary if there are any changes to current electoral boundaries, he said.

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 $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. Considering that only 300 residents of the approximately 8,900 who live in the municipality registered their opinions, MacLean said the final decision should rest with the public.

“I’m not sure how we do our public consultations or engage the public, but my take on this, and my preference on this would be that whatever the residents of Richmond County decide on this, that’s what I would be in favour of,” MacLean told council, noting he does not favour a plebiscite.

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.

“Most of the responses that we did receive, there was a question mayor versus warden, the public at that time were in favour of a mayor-at-large,” Goyetche pointed out. “Then we went to the strategic planning process and the same thing happened there.”

Goyetche disagreed with MacLean over the small size of opinions gathered, 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.

“We can only go according to the responses we get from our taxpayers,” Goyetche said. “If there’s 300 that responded, we have to go by the 300. We can’t expect that the 8,000 people in Richmond County are going to respond to a survey.”

District 4 councillor Gilbert Boucher supports a plebiscite because not enough people have registered their opinions.

“My opinion is if you want a true count, you go to a plebiscite, and then everybody gets a chance,” Boucher told council. “If people don’t want to participate, then they don’t participate in it. But by having the meetings we had with the strategic plan, all we got was little groups in St. Peter’s, four or five people in River Bourgeois, you can’t judge any decision on that. That’s not fair to the public.”

Deputy Warden Alvin Martell said he agrees with MacLean that public forums are necessary to truly know what taxpayers want.

“There’s pros and cons of having a mayor, as far as elected by the people, but as far as authority, it doesn’t have any more authority than the warden has,” Martell told council. “At the end of the day, I think it’s prudent for us to ask the public, the whole public, to see what they would like to see.”

Warden Brian Marchand said he is concerned about the extra costs in having a mayor, as well as having an even number of councillors voting.

“If we go to a council of six, that’s a bad number,” the warden told council. “Plus, it’s an extra $38,000 a year, $40,000 in the first year, so this goes against what will be happening over the next couple of years.”

“I disagree, I think the bad number presently is five,” Goyetche responded, adding that the extra cost is acceptable to the public.

After discussing how to reach out to the public to provide them with the resources they need to make fully informed decisions, 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.

During the public Question Period near the conclusion of last night’s meeting, former Richmond Warden Richie Cotton suggested educating the public first, then attaching the plebiscite to the municipal election in October, 2020.

“Unless there’s a real need for council to make the decision before this municipal election, it might be an idea to do some information sessions,” Cotton told council. “Holding the plebiscite without a corresponding municipal election is going to be very expensive.”

Former municipal councillor Gerry Bourque warned there are big differences between a mayor and a warden.

“I believe if you research the duties and powers of a mayor versus a warden, you will find a big difference,” Bourque told council. “A mayor has a lot more discretionary power than a warden. He can do a lot on his own without having to consult council.”