David Dingwall, former federal politician, once uttered the phrase “I am entitled to my entitlements.”
Although a self-serving statement, it was a true statement of fact for Mr. Dingwall. He was correct to claim what he was owed no less but certainly no more.
The recent Nova Scotia ombudsman’s comprehensive report of Richmond County municipal spending on expenses clearly indicates that several municipal officials feel that they alone should define what they are entitled to as perks of the job, and feel quite comfortable interpreting guidelines/policies in a self-serving manner to such an extent that some feel at ease telling investigating officials that the rules do not apply to them.
It has been said that man is not, by nature, deserving of all that he wants. When we think that we are automatically entitled to something, that is when we start walking all over others to get it. That is why municipal officials (elected and non-elected) need to he held to a higher standard as public servants who enjoy public trust. They are at risk of abusing their positions at the expense of the people who necessarily, as individuals, do not have the power to question. The taxpayers of Richmond County have exercised sober second thought and have, justifiably (we now know), called into question behaviour that not only contravenes the spirit of the guidelines on expenses but also the intent of those guidelines.
In a few days, Richmond County residents are expected to go to the polls in an historic election, one where representation will be reduced to half the number it was in the last council. One might wonder if the judgment used to discern the merits of such a historic move by council, to reduce representation, is the same judgment used to manage the finances of the municipality?
Quite aside from the moral questions raised by the ombudsman’s report, municipal election guidelines require that any person offering for office cannot have any outstanding debts with the municipality. Five incumbent councilors are offering for office. The ombudsman’s report clearly suggests that some of these councillors may indeed have charged inappropriate expenses to the municipality which renders them ineligible to offer for office.
The forensic audit of those expenses remains a work in progress and so it is unclear if Richmond County residents will have the information at hand to make an informed decision about the behaviour of their representatives. Indeed the ombudsman has suggested that municipal finances be subjected to a complete forensic audit going back five years. Quite aside from the legal questions raised by these questions, what begs an answer is how once honourable men could become so insulated from the common moral practices as to believe that it is acceptable to squander public funds and justify the practice as the way it has always been done. Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men and women it is the worthiest ambition. Politics is still the greatest and the most honourable adventure when it is practiced with the people’s needs in mind.
This municipal council has embarrassed all residents of Richmond County with their stonewalling, lack of transparency, lack of accountability and unwillingness to treat taxpayers with the dignity they deserve. Many taxpayers should feel vindicated by the report and politicians repudiated for their assertions that they knew better.
The ombudsman’s report has indicated that for some who were once elevated to a position of power, there is a sense of entitlement that has enabled behaviour which has harmed Richmond County. For that alone they do not deserve re-election.
If the evidence supports activity that contravenes the law, then there is an expectation that the heavy arm of the law needs to make itself known. Elected officials and senior public servants need to be held to higher standards because of the position of trust they hold. Provincial overseers, including provincial politicians, must own some of the blame for the lack of oversight of Richmond County governance and administration. Scapegoating Richmond County councillors and senior administration for 100 per cent of the blame is self-serving and morally indefensible.
Richmond County municipal elections should be suspended to protect the democratic process. This may seem counterintuitive but information clearly germane to making an informed decision is required, and perhaps more importantly, the eligibility of candidates is by no means clear. The ombudsman has opened the door for Minister Zach Churchill to seriously consider whether the current administration of the County of Richmond should be left in charge of public funds. It is time for Minister Churchill to heed the calls from residents that he has deftly ignored for several months. As Mr. Dingwall stated, “we are entitled to our entitlements.” Richmond County taxpayers are entitled to know, before the election, who must be held accountable for the misdeeds outlined in the ombudsman’s report.
“Our government… teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.” – Louis D. Brandeis
Dr. Robert Martel