Don’t forget about mayor vs. warden

Pictured are new councillors (from the left): Shawn Samson, Melanie Sampson, Brent Sampson, Amanda Mombourquette, and Michael Diggdon.

With a new council about to take over, the hard work begins.

After the votes were counted on October 17, electors in the Municipality of the County of Richmond decided the current council needed to be replaced – and not with former councillors – as newcomers Shawn Samson, Michael Diggdon, Melanie Sampson, Amanda Mombourquette, and Brent Sampson all won with comfortable majorities.

Warden Brian Marchand, former warden Jason MacLean and veteran councillors James Goyetche and Gilbert Boucher all went down to defeat, while former councillors Rod Samson and Gerry Bourque finished behind the winners in their districts.

The people of Richmond County sent a clear message; they wanted the divisions on council to end, they wanted the bickering and political games to stop, and only a completely new council, with completely new councillors could do that.

On the top of the agenda are a number of matters, not the least of which is the decision to fund the Louisdale and District Volunteer Fire Department to respond to fires at the Point Tupper Industrial Park. But other decisions and non-decisions will also require attention, one of those being controversial changes to the grant policy, as well as procedural issues such as whether to revive a public Q&A session near the conclusion of each monthly meeting.

The ever-growing limitations to the municipality’s budget will also need to be at or near the top of the new council’s priority list as the newly elected members must come up with ways to continue to fund projects, programs and services, and assisting groups and communities, while maintaining fiscal responsibility.

But one of the biggest, perhaps most significant issue which will impact the future of Richmond County is whether to hold a plebiscite on the issue of adopting a mayoral system, versus the status-quo where a warden chairs council meetings, and acts as the spokesperson and representative of the elected body.

This question was supposed to be put to voters in the recent municipal election, but the previous council did not believe there was sufficient public interest or support for such a vote.

They were wrong. In Richmond County’s strategic plan released two years ago, almost 80 per cent of residents said they favoured electing a mayor-at-large, and since then, many residents have expressed their support for allowing voters to decide.

Regardless whether there is support for a mayor or for a warden, at the very least, the previous council could have allowed residents to decide this very important matter at the polls, based on the level of public interest and the ramifications it will have on the municipality for years to come.

When Richmond County’s municipal districts were reduced to five from 10, one of the major recommendations from that governance review was that voters should decide whether to go with a mayor or retain a warden.

Since the number of elected representatives was being cut in half, it was asserted that the possibility of a mayor would put the number of seats at 6, so there wouldn’t be such a dramatic change.

In addition to increasing the amount of people, perspectives, skills, and knowledge that go into decision-making, having a mayor would eliminate the back room horse-trading and political maneuvering that has sometimes accompanied votes for warden; a process which has worked against the best interests of taxpayers.

This way, the people will decide who will lead their municipal unit for the next four years – no deals, no secrecy. And the winners will have to share their plans, their visions, and their strategies with the public if they hope to get elected.

That is full transparency, democracy and accountability in a municipality that has seen far too much of the opposite for far too long.

There are drawbacks to the mayoral system, chief among them that once the municipality reverts to this system, it cannot return to a warden system but voters will have to decide if that is too high a price to pay.

Since any plebiscite would have to take place at least by 2024, this gives the new council the opportunity to deal with the most time-sensitive and pressing mattes first, then get to this issue. There is the possibility that such a vote could take place outside of a regular municipal election, but that would be a more expensive option.

Once they do tackle this, hopefully they will consult with the public, allow as much feedback as possible, look at the facts, review previous public engagement sessions, then decide to put the question to voters.

The issue of who will lead this municipality for years to come is too important to kick further down the road.