The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing wants West Nipissing council to fill a vacant seat at the table, and Minister Steve Clark wants it done sooner than later—the seat’s been empty for close to two years.
West Nipissing council, when operating at prime capacity, consists of a mayor and eight councillors, one for each ward. On July 21, 2020, the ward 7 seat representing Verner was declared vacant soon after former councillor Jeremy Seguin resigned, citing a “toxic and dysfunctional” council as his reason for resigning.
Once a seat is declared vacant, a municipality has 60 days to fill the seat, either by appointing someone, choosing a candidate from the previous election who had the next highest vote counts, or through a by-election. West Nipissing councillors could not agree which option to pursue, and the seat remained vacant.
Vacant council seats do not sit well with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, as the Municipal Act, 2001, clearly requires those vacancies to be filled. This past January representatives from Municipal Affairs made a house call to West Nipissing council, and urged them to abide by the Act, or the Ministry would be willing to “declare all seats vacant”—and essentially abolish council and call an election for all positions.
It wasn’t just the empty seat that caught the Ministry’s eye. Council had not been meeting regularly due to quorum issues, and when council meetings did occur, they would often be cut short due to disagreements between councillors. The Minister warned councillors that if they neglected to meet within a 60-day period, the seats would be declared vacant, and West Nipissing would have to form a new council.
Since that visit, four councillors declared they would not return to council meetings until the council agreed to provide them with legal counsel regarding a letter that was circulated amongst councillors. The municipal chief administrative officer, Jay Barbeau, also decided it was in the best interest of municipal staff to no longer attend council meetings. He explained to council of his “duty to protect staff from harmful situations which may have psychological and emotional impacts”—a West Nipissing council meeting.
That was in late March, and Barbeau reached out to the Ministry as well to inform them of his decision. Now the Ministry has checked in again. “In my January 4th, 2022, letter I stated my expectation that you fill the vacancy as soon as possible,” Minister Steve Clark reiterated to mayor and council in a letter dated April 25. “Council has not done so.”
Now Clark is “using my authority” to ensure West Nipissing “take steps towards appointing someone to fill the vacancy by June 30th, 2022.” He plans to help by selecting “a facilitator to assist council with this.”
He reminded councillors in his letter that “it is an offence” under the Municipal Act “to wilfully breach a section 14 order”—the order he imposed on council—“and a council member convicted of such an offence is subject to a fine of up to $5,000.” That fine is also coupled with a disqualification from holding municipal office for two years.
Ministry staff will also “undertake a review of the administrative practices, policies, and procedures of the municipality” and will report “any recommendations to council for improvements.” This report will be available to the public once complete.
“I have also instructed staff to attend the municipality’s public council meetings as an observer for the remainder of this council’s term,” Clark informed councillors, and expects everyone’s “full cooperation.”
Last night West Nipissing council held a meeting with all councillors in attendance. The agenda was lengthy, and the Minister’s letter was included among the listed items. Soon after the meeting began, councillor Dan Roveda wanted to discuss some new information from the municipality’s integrity commissioner that focused on that letter which was causing contention amongst some councillors.
Mayor Joanne Savage took issue with Roveda “adding an item to the agenda” at that time and asked him to halt his speech. “I am not being rude,” she told Roveda, who had accused her of acting so after the mayor continually interrupted him. “You have asked to make a comment,” the mayor said, “and you are adding an item to the agenda.”
Roveda emphasized that he was following procedure, and was not adding an agenda item, but was making a statement concerning the findings of the integrity commissioner. “You are not respecting the rules of our agenda,” the mayor said, as Roveda attempted to make his point. It did not take long for the mayor to ask Roveda “to leave the meeting.”
“I will not, madame mayor,” he responded, adding there was no ground for removal. “Then I will wait until you recuse yourself from this meeting,” she said, and reiterated her point about the protocol for adding items to the agenda.
Roveda remained and told the mayor again that he was not adding an item but was making a statement. Mayor Savage asked the CAO to “remove” Roveda, “for lack of respect” toward the chair, and Roveda and the mayor carried on in disagreement for some time more before the mayor adjourned the meeting.
The Minister’s letter was not discussed. Nor was any item on the agenda. The meeting, which is available to view on the municipality’s YouTube channel, lasted just over seven minutes.
David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of BayToday, a publication of Village Media. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.