It was a loud and clear message from West Nipissing voters on Monday, Oct. 24 as municipal election results saw the current council completely wiped out and replaced with new faces. The past four years have seen council toxicity and dysfunction reach such heights that the province had to step in, leading to a public outcry for change that was unmistakable as results were finally released late Monday night.
The new team will be sworn in November 15, led by mayor-elect Kathleen Thorne Rochon. In a three-way race, Rochon took 41% of the votes, or 2698, while her rivals were nearly neck-and-neck, with 1978 for Dave Lewington and 1908 for Dan Roveda.
Only 47.68% of West Nipissing’s 13,990 eligible voters cast a ballot, a rate similar to the 2018 voter turnout and higher than the provincial average.
The campaign was hard-fought and current council conflicts bled into the race. The one camp on council, made up of mayor Joanne Savage and councillors Lise Sénécal, Denis Sénécal and Yvon Duhaime, did not run again but actively campaigned to see the other camp, incumbents Chris Fisher, Roland Larabie, Norm Roberge and current councillor Roveda, forced to vacate their seats as well. Many voters evidently agreed that there should be a wholesale change, and every incumbent was defeated.
Kathleen Thorne Rochon
The next mayor tried to stay away from the drama, as Savage publicly backed Dave Lewington as her successor and lobbied against Roveda. Rochon believes this served her well, as voters wanted someone focused on issues and not personality conflicts.
“I’m very happy with the way that we did our campaign because we focused on substance, we tried to focus on ideas, and I really stayed away from the drama and didn’t engage with things that would drag us down,” she states. “If I was successful, no matter who was elected, I wanted to be in a position that I was going to be able to develop fresh relationships with them. I didn’t run a campaign where I endorsed or supported any candidate in any ward, and I did that purposefully because I don’t get to choose the people that I work with, and I didn’t want to go into a council with any kind of residual bad feelings.”
While the new council is relatively inexperienced, she recognizes the make-up is a wake-up call to municipal government. “I think that overall, there was a large call for change within the council. It’s hard to ignore what’s gone on for the last 4 years. Right or wrong, the way residents have perceived what has gone on is that everybody has shared some portion of the blame. Our residents have spoken and that’s what democracy is. I’m not overly surprised with any particular ward results; we’ve heard all through the campaign that change was the directive.”
She has faith that this new council will be able to gel and get things done, and she’s confident staff and even former council members will be there to help ease the transition. “It would have been nice to have a bit more of a mix brought back to the council table where there was a little bit more experience, but I have confidence in my knowledge and my ability to work within the system of municipal government, and I also have a great deal of confidence in our staff to help us through the transitional period,” she says. “Over the course of the campaign, I’ve been fortunate enough to speak with several former councilors, […] so I do have a network of people who do have that experience that I can draw on as well, and I will use all of those resources to make sure that we get back to business quickly.”
Getting to work is definitely urgent, she adds, as there is plenty of unfinished business left on the table and important projects on the horizon, like the mill site, the housing strategy, as well as having to address community social issues. “I’m elated, but I’m also looking ahead and there’s a lot of big projects on the horizon. I’m going to take a couple days to digest it, and I’m sure we’ll be working right away with a transition plan with the staff.” This said within minutes of being elected, Rochon makes it clear she’s ready to roll up her sleeves.
Still, there was time for some celebration Monday evening as her family, friends, supporters and some fellow candidates joined her at Gervais Tavern to wait for results and ultimately rejoice in her victory. When the news came around 11 pm, a cheer erupted in the room, there were happy tears and hugs all around. Rochon gave a speech to thank her campaign team and supporters, her family and most of all, her husband François Rochon. “Since we met almost 20 years ago, he has been my biggest fan, supporter, and cheerleader. We all have days where we doubt ourselves, where we don’t feel like we are enough, but when I hear him talk about me, and when I see myself through his eyes, I feel invincible and believe there is nothing that I can’t accomplish. François, you are my number one champion, et je t’adore!”
She ended with an invitation to all candidates to collaborate on the work ahead. “Our work starts tomorrow. I look forward to working with those who have been elected to council. I’d also like to invite all candidates who ran to come forward, join committees and find ways to get involved and put your energy into our community. I really appreciate the expertise of our staff and I look forward to working with them through the next 4 years to help deliver the services that the citizens of West Nipissing deserve. Together we will put the unity back in community,” she concluded with her catchy campaign slogan.
There was also a celebratory atmosphere at Twiggs restaurant where Dave Lewington gathered with supporters and some ward candidates to wait for results. Those present were disappointed with his loss but proud of his campaign, and jubilation set in as they learned that the entirety of the incumbents were defeated, signaling that much-wanted change. Mayor Joanne Savage and councilors Lise Sénécal and Yvon Duhaime cheered and the whole room erupted when the results for wards 5, 6 and 7 were announced, marking the loss of Fisher, Larabie and Roberge. Everyone congratulated the winners present, Jamie Restoule for ward 4, Kaitlynn Nicol for ward 5 and Fernand Pellerin for ward 7.
Lewington joined in the celebration of the winners, taking his own loss in stride and saying he would release his comments the next day, out of deference to Rochon. He noted that he started his campaign with relative anonymity and with a much smaller budget than his opponents, so he was happy with the gains he made.
In his statement released the next day, he began with congratulating the new mayor and even offered to collaborate with her. “Ms. Thorne Rochon, it was a pleasure to interact with you and to get to know you a little more over the course of the campaign. I appreciate your sense of humour, and your desire to help foster a more inclusive community. I truly hope that we can work together on some of the common issues that both of us have identified as near and dear to our hearts, such as a Youth Committee, and a Food Security Committee. Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and give me a call over the next 4 years if you see issues that I can help to address,” he wrote.
He also thanked Roveda and all outgoing council members for their work, and had particular praise for mayor Savage for her many years of service. “Thank you for the sacrifices you have made in family time, and for the energy you have put into improving our community. I especially want to thank you for your recent efforts in trying to bring forward issues and be as transparent as possible for the citizens of West Nipissing because I can imagine that was not easy. You leave big shoes to fill,” he expressed to the mayor.
Lewington offered some advice to the new council: “Voters have sent a message that they want us to show more respect for the residents of West Nipissing. The new council will have a challenging period in front of it. It will need to be better examples to our community. It will need to debate some tough issues, and remain respectful towards each other, and understand that not everyone will agree on every issue. However that process is what makes us stronger, and that process will result in an improvement of our ideas, and making better decisions for our municipality as a whole.”
The candidate ended with words of thanks to his family, friends and campaign volunteers, and a humorous but grateful nod to his wife. “To my wife Chantal, thank you so much for your love, encouragement, patience and dedication. Poor Chantal, she thought she was marrying a farmer, and she ended up with a politician!”
Does he plan to run again in four years? When chatting with volunteers about picking up his campaign signs, he stressed “don’t throw them out!”
It was a bitter pill to swallow for mayoral hopeful Dan Roveda as the results came in, and he ended in third place, 70 votes behind Lewington. By 6 am on Tuesday morning he was already out collecting his campaign signs. “I didn’t sleep very well,” he said. On election night, he was quietly at home with wife Cynthia, expectant of a victory as all the indicators from visits and calls were that he had strong support. Then the results were posted.
“Oh well, it’s all over and we have all lost,” he commented, referencing the four incumbents from the previous term. “It’s unfortunate but that is life. I guess I wanted it too much. Tomorrow will be another day.” The clean sweep was costly as well – Roveda estimated he spent $11-12K on his campaign. He had also hired a telemarketing firm that made 4000 phone calls throughout the municipality, with 1700 respondents indicating support for him, buoying his hopes. He learned that what people say and what goes into the ballot envelope are two different things, and he’s decided that politics is no longer in his future.
“I ran a campaign I thought was positive. I didn’t get into the weeds, I stayed away from the negativity. People in the community just didn’t see it that way and wanted a change. They turned their back on the four of us (Roveda, Fisher, Larabie and Roberge). That’s alright. I just wish the council elected good luck.”
Roveda is still confident the town will move forward. “We have a sound administrator and good staff and I think they will do the job they are supposed to do. Council is there to provide a vision for the community, and that’s what will transpire. There will be a learning curve, and the learning curve is pretty extensive. People will be expecting, and they are going to be asking for, things to happen in the community and let’s hope things will work out. Actually, I feel a little relieved today. It was a long campaign. I gave it everything I could, probably to the detriment of my health, and now I have to move on, move forward, and something positive will come of this.”
As for the campaigning against him by the outgoing mayor, he said “That was her prerogative. The thing is all council was painted with the same brush, we didn’t get things done, perception was. There were a lot of things we couldn’t say publicly, the reasons why we didn’t go to certain meetings, and we’ll just take that with us as an experience. I feel very sorry for Rolly (Larabie) and for Chris (Fisher), because they worked very, very hard. For the people who ran, we’ve got some very good people on council, the new people, and hats off to them! Get ready to work hard.”
Roveda will eventually look for other ways to serve the community, outside of politics, but makes no projections right now. “Oh yeah, definitely [I’m out]. I got my taste of municipal politics, and I got my taste of politics period, and, what the heck, I feel relieved. The sun came up, look how beautiful it is today, and something good will come out of it. Hopefully the community will move forward, because I really believe this is a great community. As for my involvement in the community, I might have to be a bit selfish now and look after myself.”
Acknowledging that his energy has been depleted for the time being, Roveda stressed the efforts of all those who worked on his behalf, that it was a shared disappointment. “I will definitely rebound. I am a positive person. It hurts, but what are you going to do. And to come in third on top of that? After all the indications showing we were going to win? Wow! But we ran a good positive campaign. I can look at myself in the mirror and say we did everything we could. I worked hours and hours on this thing. Another thing, the committee I had in place kept me positive, kept me focused, and kept me out of the dirt. We didn’t run a dirty election. Nobody ever heard me say anything about my opponents, and I wish council the best of luck.”
Roveda noted that social media was a very toxic element in this election. “Now I am saying what I’ve been saying throughout the election – I have to move forward, and stay away from being negative… I’m taking my Facebook page off at noon, taking my own page off, don’t even want to be on Facebook. They got away with a lot. But I can say we ran a very positive campaign.”
In the end, he doesn’t want to hang on to hard feelings. “I hope [the council] can move the community forward. It’s democracy, and in democracy there are winners and losers. There are still people who voted for me and I’m proud of that,” he concludes.