The Minister of Municipal affairs let West Nipissing council know he is “prepared to declare all seats vacant” and force an election if change isn’t made to how council conducts business.
Bridget Schulte-Hostedde delivered the Minister’s message during a special meeting of council held January 13.
Schulte-Hostedde was joined by her colleague Kathy Horgan, both representing the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the provincial ministry responsible for overseeing municipalities.
West Nipissing council have not been regularly meeting these past months, and word made its way to Steve Clark, the Minister of Municipal Affairs.
He sent a letter to West Nipissing council, dated January 4th, which led to yesterday’s special meeting, and the special presentation from Schulte-Hostedde and Horgan.
All members of council were in attendance.
“The letter identified several concerns pertaining to meetings being cancelled,” Mayor Joanne Savage said while introducing the meeting, “and not fulfilling our obligations as elected officials.”
Clark’s letter also “identified concerns pertaining to the vacancy for Ward 7,” the Mayor said, and how “that seat has been declared vacant for more than a year and has not been filled.”
“People are frustrated, upset,” the Mayor said, “and rightfully so.”
Schulte-Hostedde explained to council that “we’re not here to adjudicate for the municipality,” and the presentation was to provide general advice to help council along rather than give advice pertaining to specific issues councillors have.
She also emphasized that “Minister Clark is prepared to exercise his authority under the Municipal Act if council doesn’t meet or host a meeting to resolve its issues within the 60 days.”
“And he is prepared to declare all seats vacant in that event.”
Indeed, due to quorum issues, council has not met throughout December, and the 60-day period will expire at the end of January.
The ministry representatives’ presentations lasted well over an hour at first highlighting the roles and responsibilities of mayor and council, as well as municipal staff.
Horgan reminded everyone “it is important to remember that council decisions are made by the entire council,” and “the head of council doesn’t have any more authority or decision-making power” then any other council member.
After the refresher on municipal government’s roles and responsibilities, Horgan and Schulte-Hostedde began offering some suggestions to get council back on track and avoid being dissolved by the province.
Policy is the key to salvation.
Enhancing and revising municipal policy became the ministry’s theme. Through improved policies, West Nipissing would be able to cure what ails them and prevent future head aches.
For instance, council could “implement policy with comprehensive job descriptions” for everyone on staff. Laying clearer roles and responsibilities would help clear any human resources grey-areas in the future.
Both Horgan and Schulte-Hostedde were providing general advice they might offer any municipality requiring help, and as such the recommendations did not necessarily pertain to a specific issue council was dealing with.
However, clarifying policy involving staff was enthusiastically recommended by the ministry.
They also encouraged incorporating “guidelines for respecting working relationships” and this could be used for council relations as well.
Horgan suggested this policy “could include ethical standards” one must follow, and the municipality could “establish an ethics executive to promote an ethical and impartial public service.”
Horgan also emphasized the importance of adopting a “complaints policy” that would allow for more communication between the municipality and residents.
“If council monitors the types of complaints that are coming in, then that’s really important in the policy making role,” she added.
Feedback via complaints allows staff and council to “determine whether certain policies or services need to be changed.”
She also explained that implementing a “very robust complaint policy” could reduce Ontario Ombudsman investigations as the municipality would have their own policies to effectively deal with residents’ complaints.
“Give the public the opportunity to be heard,” Horgan emphasized.
Updating the municipal code of conduct was also recommended, and “establish standards of respectful conduct,” and include “what is considered to be harassment or bullying?”
Horgan also recommended council “adopt a policy that will spell out how vacant seats are filled” on council.
Once drafted and adopted, “follow that policy whenever a vacancy occurs.”
If drafting and revising policy together does not mend West Nipissing council, Horgan suggests involving “an independent mediator” might “help you resolve some of your issues.”
The next meeting is scheduled for January 18. If quorum is achieved, council may have some policy issues to discuss.
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.