CLARE, N.S. – About 30 residents turned out to a Feb. 6 public meeting held for the second phase of the Municipality of Clare’s boundary review process.
Clare is undergoing this process for the third time in four years after the Clare Civic Association argued the municipality had not properly consulted the public in previous reviews, and the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board agreed.
Members of the civic association have also been advocating for the municipality to reduce the number of councillors from eight to five, citing among their reasons the small geographic size of the municipality and overall council effectiveness.
However, a recent survey conducted by Stantec, the consulting agency hired by the municipality to conduct the current boundary review process, demonstrated that the majority of survey respondents in Clare actually prefer the status quo, and want the council to remain at eight members.
The survey results were released at the first public meeting in the review process Jan. 16, a meeting that attracted more than 60 residents. The survey was well-publicized and was offered in both online and print formats from Dec. 18 to Jan. 14. More than 500 residents completed the survey and 424 residents responded to the main question regarding council size – 47 per cent of the 424 respondents favoured the current council size, while the second most popular choice was 21.7 per cent who favoured a council size of five members. Overall, 55.4 per cent of survey respondents favoured an eight-member council or even larger, while 44.6 per cent of respondents favoured seven or fewer.
Given that second-choice preference for five, and the controversial history of the process in Clare, Stantec senior planner John Heseltine said in his introduction at the meeting last week that his agency made a decision to look at both scenarios.
“Clare has applied twice in the recent past to have its council size confirmed and there have been issues with that application in both cases, so my feeling was it would be best to look at both scenarios from what I see as the two leading choices,” Heseltine said.
Maps were displayed at the Feb. 6 meeting showing existing boundaries in Clare, along with two newly created maps, one showing eight newly outlined districts, another showing five. (NOTE: THE MAPS WILL BE ADDED TO THIS POSTING LATER.)
Heseltine said the leading criteria with the UARB is voter parity. He explained that UARB rules insist that the number of eligible voters in each district be within plus or minus 10 per cent of the average voters across the municipality, unless you can provide very good reasons for not doing so. The current divisions in Clare have two districts with a more than 12 per cent difference and another with a 17 per cent difference, a fact that led Heseltine and his team to also redefine the boundaries for the current eight council members.
“So if you had 8,000 voters in Clare with eight districts, you would have 1,000 voters per district and districts would be expected to have voter numbers between 900 and 1,100 – 100 above or 100 below that 1,000 … you could be 110 over provided you could give good reason for that discrepancy,” Heseltine said.
Other criteria included communities of interest, a reasonable land size and a reasonable population that could be managed by the elected representative.
“That’s not a significant issue in Clare, which has a relatively small population – and is one of the smaller rural municipalities in N.S.,” Heseltine said.
Two other criteria that Heseltine applies to the boundary process are contiguity of the districts – areas and communities that are not broken up – and strong recognizable boundaries like main highways, lakes or rivers.
“Those issues were all in my mind when we were drawing up these boundaries,” he explained.
His team used the province’s GIS mapping system that attaches each plot of land to a community name. The process then became a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
“We noted that Weaver Settlement is currently split between district 1 and 2 – so we decided to include all of Weaver Settlement into district 1,” Heseltine said, offering several other examples of changes.
“We tried to be reasonably conservative – the goal wasn’t to unnecessarily change things… you can see some things that have changed in population patterns so that justifies some of our changes, but we didn’t go out of our way to change things for their own sake in the eight-district scenario,” he said.
His team’s eight-district map design has one district with more than 10 per cent plus or minus the average – but that difference is less than one per cent.
However, the five-district map proved a bit more challenging.
“The main issue was we had to try and get communities together and make use of the 101 as a boundary for some of the districts because it is a good, clear boundary,” Heseltine said.
The five-district map demonstrated no such voter discrepancy, but again Heseltine pointed out a unique feature of that map – that it divided the more populous coastline from the more rural, less populated areas, in some cases dividing the associated village from its rural counterpart. That being said, Heseltine said he was certain the UARB would find either choice acceptable.
Eight members of the Clare Civic Association turned out on Feb. 6 to issue one last plea, urging the council to once again consider reducing their numbers.
Association chairperson Gerard Theriault said he was pleased to see the two scenarios being represented, but then took a different tack, targeting Clare council’s structure and committee participation.
“In the past, the municipality operated by having many committees, chaired by various council members… Under this new system, standing committees were replaced by a committee of the whole council, known as the committee of the whole, dealing with the entire municipal operation,” he said. “Our council – along with many municipalities in Nova Scotia – decided to adopt this council (committee of the whole council) – CAO structure and subsequently reduced the number of standing committees while increasing the number of administrative staff. Clare presently has five standing committees, down from about 22 committees.”
Theriault went on to name various committees that he believed had been eliminated as another reason Clare council could be reduced.
“Councillors now have fewer committee meetings to attend and a larger professional staff to advise them on various issues, which enables them to be fewer in number,” he said.
He stated an odd number of council members would offer more effective governance because the warden could then cast a vote on behalf of his constituents instead of only serving as a tie-breaker, and repeated previous arguments regarding saving money, creating efficiencies and the size and population of the area in correlation with the number of councillors.
“There are 13 small towns and municipal districts in Nova Scotia operating with five councillors and one of them has a much larger population and territory (Richmond) than Clare. Richmond, Digby and Barrington have only five councillors and are managing well and providing good governance to their citizens,” Theriault said.
While he was the only official speaker for the evening, Clare Civic Association member Kristanne Chandler stood at the microphone to ask Heseltine several questions about the process, their starting point with the maps and comparisons to other regions. Chandler also asked Heseltine about the 10 per cent difference between the 55.4 per cent of survey respondents who preferred eight or more councillors and the 44.6 per cent who preferred seven or fewer, and if that difference was significant in any way.
“Given that people are not always open to change – so the status quo often has a predominant feature – is the 10 per cent a significant number or an average number?” Chandler asked.
Heseltine responded: “I guess it’s pretty average – it’s a healthy difference. Several other surveys we’ve done favoured council reduction, so if anything, this one is a little unusual in that the outcome favoured the status quo.”
After the meeting Theriault said he was a bit surprised that no one else had anything to say.
“We did the best we could with our association,” he said. “It looks like it may go to eight but that’s what the public has stated so we can’t argue with that.”
Theriault said they would now await the UARB hearing and decision.
Clare Warden Ronnie LeBlanc was also in attendance. He said he had some concerns about Theriault’s comments about his council and its committees, but chose not to speak to them.
“I don’t want to get into that, but as for the process, I’ve talked to a lot of people in the community that were at the last meeting and they felt that they were heard,” he said. “I’m quite pleased with the turnout tonight and with the consultants – they’ve done an excellent job, they’ve really dug into the numbers, really looked at the boundary scenarios – and whatever they wind up recommending I have to say they’ve done an outstanding job.”
When asked if he still preferred the status quo, LeBlanc said yes.
“I feel strongly that we’ll keep the council size because of the survey and because of the support in the last public meeting,” he said. “In reality governance is a big question when it comes to council and when you look purely at governance – a council of five becomes difficult – because a quorum is three so if you have a meeting with three then you have two people who can now make decisions for the whole municipality.
“Where it becomes really difficult is at the committee level because what happens if you have say the planning committee – which is pretty controversial – right now we have three members on it – well that would be the majority of council … I’ve spoken to other councils who have five and what they do is the committee is the council – so the council acts as the planning committee… what I find it takes away is the sober second thought,” LeBlanc added. “Those are my real concerns around the five-member council. And in all fairness if you’re not involved in council you wouldn’t really get that unless you were having to do the work and feeling the public pressure. So, all in all, I’m pleased with the way it’s going.”
RESPONSE TO STATEMENTS
Clare CEO Stéphane Cyr was also a participant during the evening’s public meeting. While LeBlanc chose not to speak to Theriault’s statements about council’s participation on committees, Cyr emailed a response to those statements the following morning.
“As discussed last evening, there are a number of inaccuracies/errors in Mr. Thériault’s (Clare Civic Association) written submission, not least of which is the number of committees on which council members participate,” Cyr wrote. “More specifically, Mr. Thériault suggests council participation on committees is down from 22 to five and cites this as an argument for a reduction in council size.
Unfortunately, this statement is misinformed. Attached is a current listing of the 22 committees on which council participates. Granted, these are not all committees of council. Some are regional committees (Waste Check, WREN, Western Regional Library), others are longstanding committees dealing with issues of strategic importance to the municipality (Villa Acadienne, police advisory, doctor recruitment). All are important,” Cyr said.
“The bylaw committee is a very active committee comprised of three councillors and staff resources (i.e. CAO and the bylaw enforcement officer). The public works committee is also comprised of three councillors plus staff resources from both our building services and public works departments.”
In response to Theriault’s charge that the municipality no longer has a communications committee, Cyr also objected.
“We also have a communications committee,” he said. “This is essentially a working committee comprised of staff only, with a goal of bettering and modernizing the municipality’s communication practices. The activities of this committee are routinely reported to council. However, since there are no councillors on the committee, it is not included on the attached list.”
Based on their findings during the boundary review process, Stantec will now make a recommendation to Clare council, and that recommendation will be discussed at the Feb. 21 Clare council meeting. That meeting is open to the public and live English translations are available. Council will then submit their decision with supporting documents to the UARB and a public hearing will be held in the municipality on a future date.