By Kirk Starratt
A legal challenge is in the works, but Kings County council wants to be proactive in seeking revisions to the Municipal Elections Act.
This move follows the disqualification of three candidates who were running for council in the Oct. 20 election.
Chief Administrative Officer Bob Ashley said the situation has been very stressful, especially for the three disqualified candidates - Peter Jackson in District 2, Rick Ackland in District 8 and Jim Winsor in District 11.
Ashley said staff wants to be proactive in seeking help from Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations Minister John MacDonell to have revisions made to the Municipal Elections Act.
However, newly-elected councillor Brian Hirtle said he is concerned the municipality is looking to be proactive before a pending Supreme Court legal challenge of the disqualifications by Ackland, Winsor and Black River Lake resident Nancy Saul-Demers.
“I’m a little concerned the proactive approach is taking place before the legal wrangling,” Hirtle said.
Municipal Solicitor Don Urquhart said the municipality hadn’t been served with any legal papers as of Nov. 6, but Coun. Wayne Atwater said he had already signed an affidavit relating to the court case.
“This is coming to court,” Atwater said. “If you haven’t believed me before, believe me now.”
A news release Nov. 7 from Ackland, Winsor and Saul-Demers confirmed their application to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia was submitted that afternoon. Winsor said democracy requires that elections be conducted in a fair and reasonable manner and they don’t believe democracy was well served here. He said they’ve been encouraged to ask the court to address what has happened.
Ackland, a retired lawyer, said the legislation is clearly problematic.
“Given what the minister is saying, we expect that will be corrected before the municipal election in 2016. That addresses our long-term goal. In the shorter term, we have an issue with the 2012 election. We would hope the judge will see this as we do.”
Saul-Demers said they’re all truly sorry it has come to this, but they felt they were left with no other way forward. They hope there will be no opposition to their application.
“Fortunately, we’re not alone in believing this is the right thing to do,” she said. “Several other folks offered moral support and expressed their concern in letters, e-mails and phone calls to our elected officials.”
Saul-Demers said they’ve also been encouraged by how many neighbours stepped up to contribute the financing and legal assistance they needed to move forward. A lawyer has offered his services at no charge.
Council voted in favour of directing the warden and chief administrator to meet with MacDonell and submit a request to the provincial government for a review of the Municipal Elections Act, specifically Section 18, and other matters of concern to the County of Kings relating to the act. Newly-elected Coun. Pauline Raven was the only one to vote against the motion.
Under the Municipal Elections Act, candidates must not serve as members on municipal boards, commissions or committees and receive remuneration for such services at the time of their nomination. Ackland served on the Grand View Manor board and Winsor the municipal trails committee at the time of their nominations. The third disqualified candidate, Peter Jackson, served on the planning advisory committee. He accepts the decision of the returning officer and is not part of the legal challenge.
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Why request a review?
Chief Administrative Officer Bob Ashley said municipal staff felt strongly the matter of three council candidates being disqualified shouldn’t be allowed to fester. He said they want to act proactively to see if they can get help from Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations Minister John MacDonell in having a review and possibly amendments made to the Municipal Elections Act.
Ashley said the minister and councillors have received several letters of complaint and angst from citizens who feel something has gone off the rails with the disqualifications. He said returning officer Heather Archibald stands by her decision to disqualify the candidates, as she felt compelled to apply that particular section of the act.
However, he said a lack of compliance doesn’t tell the whole story and there is no evidence the disqualified candidates deliberately withheld information.
“Three well-meaning citizens have been barred from the democratic election process,” Ashley said. “Council should take a leadership role and take the bull by the horns.”
He said the remuneration paid to the disqualified candidates for serving as citizen appointees on municipal committees and boards is nominal and doesn’t constitute a threat to the municipality.
“We need to interrogate the Municipal Elections Act to see if this is fair or not,” Ashley said.
Ironically, the disqualified candidates volunteered to serve on the committees and boards and should be commended for this, he said. Not many citizens are willing to do it.
Ashley said there are some 50 forms for potential candidates to fill out and municipal staff feels Form 11 is deficient. It’s explicit in asking if the candidate owes the municipality money in the form of property taxes, but isn’t explicit in having the candidate spell out what money, if any, is being received from the municipality.
This would have served as a sort of trigger mechanism that could have prevented this situation. Ashley said staff feels these forms should be consistent across the province and he feels having the municipality develop its own form is a weak solution.
Ashley said sexist language in the act demonstrates the legislation is antiquated and in need of review. He is aware there is a general provincial review in the works, but felt the municipality should take an early stand.
Other considerations for potential amendments include village commissioner resignations, municipal appointments to arms-length boards and a lack of requirement for a criminal record background check for council candidates. Newly-elected Coun. Gary Connolly brought the criminal record check concern forward.