In Richmond County you get what you vote for

I always like to remind myself that the most honourable people of all are not those who never make mistakes, but those who admit to them when they do, and then move on and do their best to right the wrongs they have done.

In October of 2016, I opined on the debacle that was unfolding at Richmond County Municipal Council over the (alleged) false expense claims made by senior staff and political representatives. Over the course of a few months, official reports from the Ombudsman (et al) eventually shed enough light on these allegations of wrong-doing that resignations and firings ensued, thus the requisite “pound of flesh” was extracted, or so we thought.

The taxpayers of the one of the poorest counties in Nova Scotia footed the bill. People wiped their brows and were confident that a purge had culled the dead wood and restored a sense of decency and best practice in governance and administration in Richmond County. A new Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) was hired and a new council was elected. However, the story is not yet ended as one of the individuals involved is currently challenging the municipality in provincial supreme court. More costs to the taxpayers can be expected.

A new slate of political representatives (recycled) took the reins of government in a scheduled municipal election in October of 2016. Those that howled the loudest about suspected malfeasance, assumed power. Once again, there was a feeling of relief and hope that things would be better. It turns out that was premature.

It is interesting to note that despite county-wide protests and indignation, it was difficult to get people to stand for office for the 2016 election. People are said to be uncomfortable with the scrutiny, criticism and public derision that comes with serving in public office. Some of it is justified, but often much of it comes a lack of understanding of inner workings of government. It can be said that elected officials do little, as a collective, to promote transparency and accountability and so their treatment becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Such is the state of municipal politics in Nova Scotia but especially Richmond County; you get what you voted for.

It is April 2019 and once again we have arrived at a place where faith in our municipal governance has been shaken to the core. At the heart of the matter is the summary firing (without cause) of the CAO some 14 months into a five year contract. Again the claim was framed as “irregularities” around “over expenditures” in a “sundry account,” which is ill-defined and somewhat of a black hole. The lack of clarity coming from the majority of council through their spokesperson, the deputy warden, defies credulity and makes a farce of responsible governance. One can conclude that the majority of council must have lost faith in the CAO, but to fire him for an alleged misdirected expenditure of approximately $10,000 in a $13,000,000-plus budget is difficult to characterize as anything but smoke and mirrors. We deserve more accountability!

As before, those responsible for the oversight of municipal governance, the provincial ministry of Municipal Affairs, decreed that the people of Richmond County must live with the choices they have made at the ballot box. How is that for punting the problem and victimizing the victims?

As Easter approaches, I am reminded of Pontius Pilate as he “washed his hands” of his responsibility allegedly stating that the “people have spoken, they will decide.” It is perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but also an illustration, that the power of the people is constrained by the democratic instruments we have at our disposal.

It is generally accepted that the ethical standards of an organization are determined by the behaviour of its instrument of governance. Through its ongoing actions municipal councils decide what the behaviour of their members will and will not be tolerated. These actions supersede ethical statements however important such statements show an organization’s true values.

Unfortunately, we have a situation in Richmond County where the reduction of council representatives to five members from 10 has diluted the discussion around consequential matters such that the vote of one person can disproportionately alter the course and faith of thousands of residents. For the deputy warden to claim that “democracy has spoken” when referring to 50-plus one is a display of shameful arrogance and disrespect for the minority opinion and lends credence to the argument that five councillors was the wrong number.

Councilors (similar to directors of a corporation) are clearly in a fiduciary relationship with those they serve. Fiduciary duties arise in the context of a trust relationship.

Richmond County Municipal council is indeed a challenged organization that, in my view, has lost the confidence of the people they swore to govern and has breached their fiduciary duty in that they have failed to defend the interest of their residents.

As one observes the behaviour of council members, it is clear that each feels they are doing a good job and appear undeterred by the broad-based view that they are not. It is a classic case of not knowing what they do not know and refusing to accept that there may be people who know more than they do. In psychology, this is known as the Kruger-Dunning effect. It is painful to observe this play it itself out on our door step.

Richmond County has many challenges not the least of which is that it is among the oldest demographics in Canada. Informed, credible leadership is required to develop and implement innovative solutions to overcome unique problems brought on by the many challenges associated with an aging population, large geography and poverty.

We currently do not have that leadership in Richmond County.

A divided and dysfunctional municipal council is a barrier that must be eliminated if we are to thrive (even survive) as a municipal unit. It is incredible to believe that the provincial government believes that this is an acceptable standard of governance. People should be reminded that school boards have been dismissed for less in this area. Why the double standard?

It is clear that the provincial government will not intervene directly and so it is left to residents of Richmond County to demand better of both their municipal and provincial leaders. It is time to dial down the rhetoric and reflect on how to address this issue.

If there were ever a case for referring the status of this elected body to an impeachment process this is it. Failing that, I appeal to the councilors of Richmond County to resign and ask for a new mandate. Actually it would only require three councilors to resign to trigger and election. Only then would this council have the moral authority to govern. As it stands today, to support the status-quo will condone a tyrannical regime that has the disposition to summarily fire staff (without cause) without a full accountability of its actions. Staff deserves better.

Good governance with good intentions is the hallmark of good government; implementation with integrity should be a core passion.

One last word, a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way. A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit. Do the right thing and let the people of Richmond County decide if they want to be governed by this council.

Dr. Robert Martel

West Arichat