OPINION: Appointments or byelections?

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By Nick Seebruch
OPINION: Appointments or byelections?
A ballot box

Regionally, this has very much been a year where the municipal electoral system has been put to the test.

Three regional municipalities have had to make decisions on how to best fill vacancies that have opened around their council tables.

In June, Cornwall City Council had to deal with the vacancy left by Mayor Bernadette Clement when she was elevated to the Senate of Canada.

Two weeks ago, North Dundas Councillor Tyler Hoy abruptly resigned his seat, and last week South Glengarry mayor Frank Prevost also resigned under a cloud of controversy.

I have yet to see how North Dundas plans on addressing their vacancy, but if they follow the trend set by Cornwall and South Glengarry, they will likely appoint someone.

The issue of whether to appoint a person to Council or to hold a byelection is contentious with no easy answer. For months now I’ve been listening to arguments from all sides.

Each side boils down to two basic arguments. The first is that appointing a person to fill a council vacancy is preferable, because a by-election would cost tens of thousands of dollars and there would be about three or four months left in Councils four-year term before the next election.

The argument from the other side is that regardless of the cost or of the time left, that we live in a democracy and that those who represent us should be elected by the people.

I think this all boils down to how you feel about democracy and if you think there is a dollar value that can be put to it.

Let’s look at Cornwall as a test case.

Cornwall Council first had to make the decision whether or not to hold a byelection, or to appoint someone to the Mayor’s office. They chose the latter.

Under the Municipal Act, by choosing to appoint someone, Council then had the power to appoint anyone who is eligible to run for the office of Mayor in the City of Cornwall.

What they chose to do was to appoint Councillor Glen Grant as Mayor. They reasoned that Grant had previously expressed interest in running for Mayor and had many years of experience as a Councillor. Additionally, Grant announced that he would not be running again in the next election, meaning that anyone running for Mayor in the 2022 election would not have an incumbent’s advantage. Sound logic so far.

This left Grant’s Council seat vacant.

For this vacancy, Council chose to follow past precedent and appoint the person who got the next most votes in the last election without making it onto Council, Denis Carr.

Herein lies the problem with the Municipal Act that governs the issue of Council vacancies, it leaves room for wide inconsistencies.

Council chose not to go down the roll of candidates and appoint the person who got the next most votes to be Mayor, but they did do that for the position of Councillor.

I do think Mayor Grant is one of if not the most qualified candidate available in the city to be Mayor, but the more I think about how Council treated the issue of this vacancy, the more I feel like the process was clunky and frankly undemocratic.

I feel Cornwall Council could have saved itself a lot of rightly earned criticism by simply holding a byelection for Mayor. Cornwall has no Deputy Mayor. No matter how qualified Mayor Grant is, the Cornwall electorate did not vote for him to be a Mayor, they voted for him to be a Councillor. Mayor is the most important elected office in the municipality.

The issue of not having a Deputy Mayor is why I feel differently about the way that South Glengarry Council handled their vacancy last week.

Like Cornwall, they also chose to appoint someone. Unlike Cornwall, South Glengarry does have a Deputy Mayor, who until he was appointed Mayor on Thursday had been effectively carrying out those duties for the past six months.

When Lyle Warden was elected Deputy Mayor, the electorate already had to see him and consider him as someone who could potentially serve in the top job someday. While not as democratic as holding a byelection, I still think that the voice of the people was more clearly heard in South Glengarry than in Cornwall.

South Glengarry also had to choose someone to fill the vacant Deputy Mayor’s position and they chose Councillor Stephanie Jaworski. Jaworski was chosen because of her experience and because of the time she has spent representing South Glengarry at the United Counties of SD&G Council, which is the job of a Township’s Mayor and Deputy Mayor. Again however, the electorate did not consider Stephanie Jaworski to be Deputy Mayor, they considered her to be a Councillor.

It would have been more democratic to hold a byelection, yes, but would it have made more sense? Again, I think that boils down to how each of us feels about the concept of democracy, and if the values of democracy take precedent over any dollar value or other consideration.

Interestingly, South Glengarry is taking a different route to filling the now vacant Council seat left by Stephanie Jaworski, they are accepting applications from the public. This also is not as democratic as a byelection, but hopefully this will be a transparent process that will allow for some public input on the potential applicants.

What do you think readers? Should councils hold byelections to fill vacancies regardless of the cost to taxpayers? Email me a Letter to the Editor at nseebruch@seawaynews.media

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