Q&A: Why abstain?

Image of Nick Seebruch
By Nick Seebruch
Q&A: Why abstain?
Councillor Justin Towndale. Seaway News file photo.

CORNWALL, Ontario – At a recent vote to increase their pay, Cornwall Councillors voted eight in favour, two opposed, and one abstention.

READ MORE: Council votes to increase pay

Abstentions are a rare occurrence on Council. There were only two in the last four year term and only one this term so far. That one was Councillor Justin Towndale.

The Ontario Municipal Act and the City of Cornwall’s own by-laws view abstentions as a “no” vote, so, is an abstention a “no” in all but name, or is there an important difference.

We had a Q&A with Councillor Towndale to ask him why he chose to abstain instead of falling on either side of the fence.

Q: Why did you vote to abstain?

During the meeting, I outlined my argument prior to voting. Back in 2014, I campaigned against the raise passed by the previous Council. In 2015, when we voted to scrap the raise, we were provided with the a report written by the consultant, which I felt was flawed as it claimed that we deserved more pay because we represented residents of South Glengarry and South Stormont, which isn’t the case. Last term, we created a committee to look into Council compensation and accepted applications from residents. The committee fell apart when one of the members decided to run for Council themselves and, as a result, did not finish its work. As such, we didn’t have the analysis that we were looking for. I do acknowledge that Council was underpaid before the raise. If you were to sum up all the hours that we work, factoring in Council meetings, committee meetings, events in the community, conferences, preparation and reading for all the meetings, meeting with constituents, phone calls, emails, etc., the current honourarium works out to $2-$5/hr depending. Despite this, I didn’t run for Council looking for a raise. Early on I had put forward a motion to explore the idea of returning to wards in the City of Cornwall. This motion encompasses a greater discussion on the size of Council, and as a result, I believe the salary of Council. As such, I do not believe that we were ready to vote on the item at this time. One of my colleagues said that it was a privilege to be able to vote on one’s own salary. I think it’s a curse. Upon taking into account all of these factors, I decided to abstain. I could have voted ‘no’, but an abstention is a refusal to vote. I wanted to make a point in this case.

Q: What would you say to someone who feels you were elected to make a decision on any matter?

I can’t find it now, but previously I received an email from a resident who applauded me the last time I abstained saying that he would rather a representative who took the time to make an informed decision and voted with his conscious than one who did not. I was elected to represent the residents of the City of Cornwall in a responsible manner, and to try to make the best decision possible with all the available information. I’ve received a few similar comments time around as well. The option to abstain is one that is open to all elected representatives, and while it should not be overused, it should be used when the respective representative feels that it is appropriate. To limit my ability to vote, or not, would make me ineffective as a representative.

Q: Now that you’ve had more time to think on the topic, would you change your vote?

No. In addition, I didn’t fully agree with Councillor MacDonald’s motion. While the motion does bring us on par with our comparables, and the rest of Ontario, The major issue was moreso the removal of the tax free portion of a Councillor’s salary, which essentially increased the income tax on Councillor salaries by 30%. One of the solutions proposed for this was to simply fold our expense account, approximately $1200, into our salary. It would not cover the full loss, but it would make up for the majority of it. I could have supported this motion, but it was not tabled.

Q: Have you ever abstained from a vote before?

Yes, once in 2015 during a budget meeting. At the time, the Seaway News wrote an editorial about it, and I provided a response. I’d like to point out again, that I am not the first person around this table who has abstained, and I likely won’t be the last.

Q: Will you accept the pay increase? Or will you donate that amount back to the City as your colleague Claude McIntosh suggested?

The pay increase takes effect regardless now as it has passed Council. So by default, I “accept” it. I tend to donate frequently to local charities (another option raised by Councillor McIntosh) and will continue to do so. The raise enables me to donate more, as I had scaled back a bit. I did cancel a large annual donation to a local charity and will now look at starting that up again. Further, in the past, when I have been away for military training, I have waived my honourarium during these periods as I wasn’t able to be effective as a Councillor. I did so in 2016 and 2018 respectively. So if you were to pull the numbers for those years, you’ll find that I made less than my colleagues. I plan to do the same again in 2020, and onward as required. So I think its clear that I’m not here solely for the money.

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