When I moved to West Nipissing in October 2020, the hot topic in town was the recent vacancy of the Ward 7 seat and how that was grinding progress to a halt. Now as I prepare to leave after almost two years of covering stalemates, legal threats and so many bad faith arguments, what was the democratic solution to finally filling the vacant council seat?
Picking a name out of a hat. It’s apt that council would solve this mess the same way one chooses a phrase for charades, as that’s what this entire process has felt like.
Norm Roberge was appointed to fill the vacant seat on council at a special meeting on June 15, after a predictably split four-four vote between he and Fern Pellerin was solved by the town’s treasurer randomly drawing a name out of a box.
No one can argue that Roberge isn’t a worthy selection. He has over 12 years of political experience and served as the Ward 7 Councillor for three consecutive terms prior to the 2018 election. He currently sits on the Agricultural Advisory Committee, Planning Advisory Committee, Committee of Adjustments, and Cemetery Board.
What’s frustrating about the appointment is not just the unnecessary delay, but the completely childish resolution to a problem caused by a level of stubbornness that would make a six-year-old blush.
Roberge, the runner-up for Verner in the 2018 election, could have filled the seat two years ago had council opted to fill the seat by appointment, a move that councillors Chris Fisher, Leo Malette, Rolly Larabie and Dan Roveda argued made most sense during the COVID-19 pandemic. But their counterparts, Mayor Joanne Savage and councillors Yvon Duhaime, Denis Sénécal and Lise Sénécal said that the people of Verner should have a say in the appointment, even after the deadline for a by-election passed this March.
The deadlock surely would’ve stayed in place until this fall’s election had Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark not stepped in this April and ordered council to fill the seat by June 30, or members could face a possible $5,000 fine and a ban from office for two years. (Why those powers were not put to use earlier, as council had been in violation of the Municipal Act since September 2020, the Ministry has never provided an answer.)
With that deadline imposed and Clark’s appointed facilitator Nigel Bellchamber helping guide the process of filling the seat, council still managed to make this as painful as pulling teeth.
The six registered candidates – Melissa Cyr, Larry Morin, Jamie Restoule, Christine Riberdy, Pellerin and Roberge – underwent short interviews at a special meeting on June 9. Council then spent half of the meeting afterwards trying to determine how they would break a tie, basically acknowledging that there was no way they would ever get a majority one way or the other. An initial motion to direct the facilitator to explore a policy for breaking ties was defeated by Fisher, Malette, Larabie and Roveda.
After that, they put forward a motion to appoint Roberge to the position. The mayor’s four argued against Roberge, without offering any other names to the contrary. Denis Sénécal went so far as to accuse the other four members of council of “bias” during the June 9 interviews, because they still thought Roberge was the best candidate for the job after 15-minute interviews with each of the six potential candidates.
“Mr. Roberge did not even put up a sign for the last elections. He had his chance to promote himself during the elections. Even if there was a, whatever, 67%, he never won, he never showed interest. The only thing he wants to do is finish the term, but I think we should have a candidate that maybe is looking a little further ahead, and maybe trying to get experience for the next election,” argued Sénécal.
Meanwhile, Coun. Lise Sénécal was on the defensive, showing her insecurity during one of Coun. Roveda’s comments.
“We have to move forward,” he said. “We’ve got agendas that are that thick, we cannot do the election. The logical thing to do like every community in Northern Ontario…”
“Point of order,” interrupted Sénécal. “I’m really feeling that logical means that you think that you’re smarter than me. I don’t think you’re smarter than anybody in this room Coun. Dan and that’s not right to be treated like that. Logical means because they’re saying something, they’re smarter, I don’t think so. I resent that and this is not right.”
Bellchamber clarified after the fact that a point of order can’t be used to interrupt another member of council, something that has been wholly ignored over these last few chaotic years.
“Your worship, your role is to maintain decorum in council chambers and that decorum includes appropriate behaviour,” Bellchamber told the mayor. “Appropriate behaviour does not include personal attacks from one member against another member. I think that’s something that’s really important because I think this is going away from the resolution at hand and I don’t think it’s going to serve the municipality well to do that.”
Roberge’s appointment was defeated, prompting a reconsideration of the motion to direct Bellchamber to find them a tie-breaking method, putting off a decision yet again. At the subsequent June 15 special meeting, members were presented with a draft of the Council Vacancy Appointment Policy. The policy, crafted with the help of the town’s solicitor Ed Veldboom, Bellchamber and the Municipal Clerk, would determine how to select a winner from the six candidates by vote, including drawing lots in the event of a tie.
Though seemingly straightforward, the discussion of the policy featured some of the trademark nitpicking you’ve come to expect from members of council. That included Lise Sénécal looking to have an amendment stating that candidates can be asked questions in English or in French.
“Do you already have a policy declaring the municipality, municipal council or the corporation to be bilingual?” Bellchamber asked council. “Yes, we do,” answered Savage. The consultant advised: “Then that would cover it. So, you really don’t need to add it because that’s the policy… It would be redundant or unnecessary.”
The policy was adopted after an hour, and then came time to vote. After the predictable tie, five pieces of paper for Roberge and five for Pellerin were placed in a box and one was chosen at random by town Treasurer Alisa Craddock. That’s how the candidate who had a letter of endorsement from eight previous council members, who had the support of large chunks of the West Nipissing Facebook community, and who was already serving on several municipal committees, ended up getting the position: random chance.
Now, the deadlocks and losses of quorum and piling up of agenda items at council will cease, at least temporarily. Residents of Verner, who continue to report issues with tap water, are surely pleased to have someone representing them at the table. But if all that was required to fill the seat was a coin flip, then what residents need to keep asking themselves is, why did this take so long? If every member of council was fine leaving this up to random chance, then surely this wasn’t a decision they were ever truly principled about in the first place. It was only about control, and some clearly saw a 50-50 shot of having “their person” in place was good enough.
If this process has shown West Nipissing anything, it’s that certain members of council are too childish and petty to continue on in these roles. It’s something to consider when they come knocking on your door this fall.
Good luck, West Nipissing and I hope for your sake, you make better choices in the future.
Journalist Eric Thompson is leaving West Nipissing for a position in Southern Ontario. This is his final piece for the Tribune.