Time for Richmond County to switch to mayoral system

Despite the fact that only a small fraction of Richmond County residents gave their opinion, a strong majority of those surveyed support a mayoral system for the municipality, and that avenue must be pursued.

During the regular monthly meeting of Richmond Municipal Council on January 28 in Arichat, 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 last year.

The document also includes the results of a survey completed by Richmond County residents.

One of the more notable results was that 76.62 per cent of residents who did the survey 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 those who attended the planning sessions also stated their preference was to move to a system to elect a mayor.

But following last month’s meeting, Deputy Warden Brian Marchand said only a small fraction of the population – 154 residents – gave their opinion in the survey, and he felt the public did not have sufficient information to make an informed decision.

Although he acknowledged that the number of residents who gave their opinions was not large and not everyone had all the information they needed, Richmond Warden Jason MacLean said there seems to be a consensus in the municipality.

If the change is made, MacLean explained that instead of voting for a municipal councillor only, voters across the county would also be asked to select a mayor. While there will be extra costs with the addition of an elected official, the warden said it would only be a matter of changing titles.

Council will be discussing the strategic plan during its regular monthly meeting scheduled for February 25 in Arichat.

If council decides to proceed with the change, it must authorize municipal staff to begin the application process on or before October 1, according to the Municipal Government Act.

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, outline the cost and measure the workability of moving to a mayor.

If councillors decide to go in this direction, it will not be without precedent as the governance issue dominated discussion during the previous municipal term.

After years of debate, during a meeting on February 1, 2017 in Arichat, councillors voted 4-3 in favour of discarding the system of selecting a warden from within council ranks to allow Richmond County residents to select a mayor at large

But the following day, the Department of Municipal Affairs confirmed that the municipality missed a January 15 deadline to apply for such a shift in the council’s governance model, noting that the department had to abide by the Municipal Government Act, which states that an application to switch to a mayoral system can occur no later than nine months before the date of a municipal election.

Until the results of that survey were released earlier this month, it was assumed this debate was dead but after a vast majority of those who completed the survey and those who provided feedback at the public consultation sessions said they want a mayor at the helm, that issue has re-emerged.

Yes, the on-line survey was a small sample size, but coupled with the feedback from the public meetings, and the fact the majority was overwhelming, it’s clear there are many in the municipality who want change.

And yes, it is conceivable not all residents had all the information they required to make a fully informed decision, but given the tumult of recent years in Richmond County – when a financial scandal forced the former CAO to resign and council was paralyzed by dysfunction – it’s possible they had all the information they needed from this experience and believe a new system will avoid the problems of the past.

And given those events, a move toward openness in the municipal unit is a good idea.

Not only will having a mayor increase the number of elected officials representing voters, it is far more democratic and responsible to have residents deciding who leads their municipality.

Under the current system, wardens are elected by five councillors, in a secret ballot, where no one knows who has voted for whom and why. This level of secrecy flies in the face of attempts by Richmond County to be more transparent to the public.

This also does away with the horse-trading of projects and doing favours in exchange for political support from fellow councillors to become warden. Under the mayoral system, candidates will have to present their plans to the public, engage voters, and can be held to account for their time as mayor, rather than losing a vote of council and disappearing from the position.

This is what democracy is all about, this is what a fully accountable government does, and this is what is needed in Richmond County.