A line has been drawn in the sand in West Nipissing by its split council and it will take a change of heart by one of its members to fill its Ward 7 seat.
Six weeks ago, the eight-member council — short its representative from Verner following Jeremy Seguin's resignation — was deadlocked following a committee discussion on whether to proceed by appointment or by-election to fill the empty seat and the stalemate remains following last night's meeting.
CAO Jay Barbeau, who is frequently cast as the mediator of often heated discussions among West Nipissing's elected officials, summed up the evening's impasse by commenting, "It would appear no one has changed their opinion," and later added, "Right now, you don't have a decision on filling the vacancy and it's as simple as that."
A poll of the eight members, including Mayor Joanne Savage, returned the identical split result as six weeks prior: four for an appointment and four for holding a by-election for the Ward 7 seat. The Mayor and Councillors Yvon Duhaime, Lise Senecal and Denis Senecal favour a by-election, while Councillors Chris Fisher, Roland Larabie, Leo Malette and Dan Roveda prefer an appointment, namely the appointment of 2018 Ward 7 runner-up Normand Roberge.
See related story: 'Democratic process circumvented' say rebelling West Nipissing councillors
"I would like to see the democratic system, a by-election," Duhaime said, a sentiment echoed by Denis Senecal.
Lise Senecal added, "I believe in democracy, I would not support an appointment."
Fisher expressed it is a bad idea to set a by-election in motion due to the pandemic with candidates perhaps campaigning by knocking on doors. Fisher and Malette then backed appointing Normand Roberge.
"Across Ontario, some have filled vacancies by appointment, some by by-election, even during COVID," Savage said.
She expressed her "utmost respect" for Roberge then mentioned that word another candidate might be interested in the vacant seat has a by-election receiving her support. The Mayor noted the Ward 7 seat was acclaimed from 2003-18 and favoured giving its residents the opportunity to choose between interested parties.
See related story: Reaction to Seguin's resignation, 'lack of leadership' claim
"Verner is not getting representation until Christmas or January and deserves to be in on the budget process," if by-election was the choice, observed Fisher.
Roveda kept his support firmly behind an appointment, and offered, "Roberge already has the confidence of council. He ran and received a healthy number of votes."
Roveda added, in Hamilton, Ont., runner-up status and previous political experience are benchmarks in filling vacant council seats.
"Any [further] back and forth may be inflammatory and divisive," Barbeau declared in recommending pulling the motion and moving on with other municipal business, possibly leaving the Ward 7 seat vacant for the remainder of this term, until 2022.
At the July 21 meeting, Council voted to declare Seguin's seat vacant, triggering a 60-day period for the municipality to announce its intended direction to make the West Nipissing Council whole once more. Barbeau said September 18 is 60 days since declaring the seat vacant.
Barbeau said during Tuesday's meeting — held via the Zoom platform and streamed to YouTube, a first for West Nipissing — although the legislation talks about filling by appointment within 60 days the "limitation period seems to be loosened by COVID."
Barbeau indicated he had been in contact with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, which oversees local elections and governance.
"You have a vacancy in Ward 7 until that changes," Barbeau informed Council unless Municipal Affairs intervenes, but the "upper level of government is reluctant to intercede in local positions."
He added, "It's not common, it does occur. You stay at seven councillors and a mayor until someone expresses they want to change their position."
Coun. Denis Senecal summed up the evening's efforts with, "We're a hung council. It's not fair to appoint a candidate when others are willing to run. We can't decide, it's obvious."