Clarence-Rockland Mayor Guy Desjardins said his municipality is reluctant to pay for a regional fire dispatch service as it's already covered by Ottawa. (File photo/Francis Tessier-Burns).

Faced with power imbalance UCPR council keeps status quo

At the United Counties of Prescott and Russell’s (UCPR) latest council meeting, Russell Mayor, Pierre Leroux presented his fellow members with a 10-item list of proposed procedural changes. 

Here are three that stood out. 

Removing the secret vote  

Leroux proposed to vote for the Warden in a public vote rather than in secret.

Stéphane Parisien, CAO of the UCPR, was quick to mention there was a clause in the Municipal Act that allowed the head of council be elected in secret.

“So it should stay that way,” said Parisien.

While true, Leroux replied that the law said that the head of council may be elected in secret, it isn’t an obligation.

“If we’re voting in public 99 per cent of the time, why do we have to do it in secret on this one issue,” he said.

Hawkesbury Mayor Jeanne Charlebois had a simple response: “To save relationships,” she said half-jokingly. 

Council settled on keeping the vote secret.

Longer warden mandate

The result of that vote was also part of the discussion—council debated extending the warden’s term to two years instead of one.

Current Warden Gary Barton mentioned representing the UCPR at the Eastern Ontario Wardens Caucus (EOWC)  is “quite the experience,” but is also ready to hand over the position to another member of council after only one year.

He added that returning heads of council to the EOWC have a “distinct advantage” over their new counterparts.

Clarence-Rockland Mayor Guy Desjardins, and previous Warden, said he could agree to the two-year term as long as the person had the possibility of stepping down after one year.

Mayor Charlebois suggested having a ninth member of council serve as the warden for the entire four-year term. That person would be elected by the entire Prescott-Russell population and not just the mayors.

“I think that’s one way that you have consistency and the person who is there for four years will be able to follow all the files,” she said.

Parisien finally suggested adding the position of Deputy-Warden, which is done in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry. The deputy-warden would also attend EOWC meetings and could step in if the warden was unavailable. At the end of the warden’s year term, the deputy-warden would fill those shoes, effectively bringing a little bit more consistency to the position.

That idea was adopted by council, though the position likely wouldn’t be created until 2019.

Capping municipalities’ voting power

Finally, Leroux proposed re-introducing a cap to the number of votes each municipality has in a registered vote to address the growing imbalance between the municipalities’ power.

A quick recap: the previous UCPR council decided to remove the cap, now municipalities have one vote for every 3,000 eligible voters. The current count stands at:

  • Clarence-Rockland – 7 votes
  • La Nation – 4 votes
  • Russell – 4 votes
  • Champlain – 3 votes
  • Hawkesbury – 3 votes
  • Alfred-Plantagenet – 3 votes
  • Casselman – 1 vote
  • Hawkesbury Est – 1 vote

This section worries me to be honest, because essentially with the growth being all in the west, it could control everything in a few years,” said Leroux.

Barton offered a reminder to the rest of council.

“We’re sitting on County council here, we have to look at the bigger picture,” he said. 

Though that didn’t persuade Mayor Desjardins, who said since Clarence-Rockland has the biggest population, and therefore contributing the largest portion to the tax base, then it should have a bigger say in County affairs.   

“You already have double of my vote,” replied Barton. “I understand the amount of money you’re paying, I understand you have more population and I understand very clearly that you’re growing. The west end of the Counties is growing faster than the east end because you get the spin-off of Ottawa. Good for you, but you have to look at the whole County.”

Barton later suggested freezing the cap to the current number of votes, but that was shot down by Parisien citing the need to go through a complex process that wouldn’t be worth it in the end.

While the UCPR doesn’t hold registered votes regularly, it will usually do so on divisive matters. One of the most recent examples is the zoning change that was voted on for the proposed cement plant in L’Orignal. The result of that vote was 19 for and seven against—the seven being all three municipalities in the east. Despite Champlain being the host municipality, the current system allowed its voice to be overruled.

“If we don’t make a decision then we’re kicking the can down the road,” said Pierre Leroux. “I’m not saying this is the situation now, but in 10 or 15 years down the road we find ourselves with Russell and Clarence-Rockland who can essentially control everything, who can sit here at budget time and say, ‘No we’re not paving any roads in the east end, we’re going to do everything and spend all the money in the west end’. That’s a possibility that could happen if two or three areas have complete control.”

Again that didn’t persuade council to make any changes.

Mayor Charlebois said it was too late in the current term to make any significant changes, and that was echoed by Parisien.

“I doubt any of your numbers will go up in the next mandate,” he said. “I would leave it alone.”

Barton acquiesced.

Desjardins chimed in one last time to reassure the rest of the mayors the current system is working.

“Up to now, it’s going very well,” he said. “If there comes to be a problem, then we’ll discuss it.”

An easy declaration to make when in the position with the most power.

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