Richmond investigates change from warden to mayor system

The Municipality of the County of Richmond held public consultation sessions around the municipality last year.

ARICHAT: Although public opinions vary, council has decided to investigate the cost and process for changing from the current warden system, to electing a mayor-at-large.

During the regular monthly meeting of Richmond Municipal Council on February 25 in Arichat, District 1 councillor James Goyetche received council’s approval to direct the Chief Administrative Officer to initiate an investigative review and cost analysis of the two systems of governance, including the timelines and procedure for implementing any changes, to be presented at the May 27 monthly meeting of council.

During the regular monthly meeting on January 28, councillors approved the recommendation of the committee-of-the-whole to accept Richmond County’s strategic plan for 2019-2024.

In the strategic plan, Richmond County officials detailed feedback provided during the public consultation process in which eight meetings were held in communities around the municipality. According to the strategic plan, “an overwhelming majority” of those who attended the planning sessions stated their preference was to move to a system to elect a mayor.

The document also includes the results of a survey completed by Richmond County residents which showed that 76.62 per cent of residents who did the survey support a mayoral system to govern the municipality, while 23.38 per cent favour the current warden system.

During the question period near the end of last week’s meeting, Petit de Grat resident Robbie Fougere told council that he supports a mayoral system to heal the regional divisions in the municipality.

“There was a lot of talk about division; island versus mainland, east versus west, people not working together, and so on,” Fougere recalled of the public feedback gathered last year. “That’s too bad because we’re a small county and I think we have to work together. If we want to go somewhere, we have to be on the same boat.

“If we have someone elected on a county level, then he’s our man, or she’s our woman.”

In addition to bridging divides, a mayor elected-at-large could have stemmed the financial scandals of the recent past, Fougere said.

Calling it a “new way of doing things,” Fougere said a large majority of residents want to adopt the new model because it is more democratic and empowering. He said wardens are elected only as councillors, and without platforms.

“People will feel they have a say in choosing their warden or mayor,” Fougere told council.

According to the Municipal Government Act, should council decide to proceed with the change, it must authorize administration to begin the application process on or before October 1.

To make this change, as prescribed in the strategic plan, council has to first debate the governance model, then undertake a public engagement process with meetings and provide more options for input, and finally, have the administrative arm of the municipality define the process and workability of moving to a mayor.

Noting that he doesn’t think residents had all the information they needed before completing the survey and providing feedback, Deputy Warden Brian Marchand questioned whether a mayor-at-large would have helped stem the scandals of the recent past.

“I don’t see the mayor as having any more powers than the current warden,” Marchand said. “If his or her council does not support his or her decisions, they’re not going far.”

Following last week’s council meeting, the deputy warden also noted that areas that have mayors are “common areas,” like towns. He suggested choosing a mayor from within council.

“Most of the residents have the same services and the same issues, whereas in a diverse area like Richmond County, from one end to the other, some have water, some have sewer, some have services, some don’t.”

St. Peter’s resident Germaine MacDonald is not in favour of a mayoral system. She noted that when those changes were sought in 2015, the municipality was prevented because of strict timelines.

Aside from the costs associated, MacDonald noted that once the municipality changes to a mayoral system, it cannot revert back. Another concern is that a mayor and councillor can come from the same district, giving some communities more political clout than others. She also wanted to know if a mayor would be a full-time position.

Because the mayor chairs meetings as wardens do, MacDonald suggested that other governance options can be explored, such as electing a mayor from council, or having a warden elected at large.

“I would feel better if we had five people at this table who could speak their own mind and not feel they have to do something for somebody,” she told council.

Acknowledging that the percentage of those surveyed who support a mayor is large, Warden Jason MacLean said the fewer than 300 people who gave their opinions is not enough of a sample size upon which to base such an important decision. He said the municipality also wants to give residents as much information as possible during this process.

“I don’t feel that by saying that 300 people have made their input in regards to what the future of Richmond County’s elected officials are going to look like, I really don’t think that’s a good representative of what we want to see as far as people making decisions,” MacLean said.

The public feedback and survey results can be viewed on the municipality’s Web site at: http://www.richmondcounty.ca/council/municipal-documents.html?own=0.