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The most important election

Citizens in the Valley might think the biggest civic act they can perform this fall is to vote in the federal election. But the people running your municipality, however small that municipality may be, could have more direct and immediate impacts on your finances, your enjoyment of life, your options for fun and aid, than the folks in Ottawa.

Laws made by provinces or federal authorities outweigh municipal ones should they conflict, but there are many areas where towns and villages are in charge. Zoning, so long as it conforms to overall goals set at the MRC level, is up to a town. Many rural residents want the kind of municipal zoning that can save them from finding their homes suddenly next door to a factory or a noisy new business. Ryan Young, a Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue city councillor, says that all towns “have the power to protect water sources, to make noisy neighbours quiet down, to make sure someone will come in case of fire, to protect natural areas, to build parks or foster recreation.” For example, the recent discovery that Havelock had zoned a quarry for only “extractive” activities seems to have temporarily saved Covey Hill from a very unpopular asphalt factory. Such zoning can be challenged in court, however, or changed by a future mayor or council.

Young also points out that although we may assume that a large provincial ministry like the Ministère de l’Environnement et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques (MELCC) would have ultimate control over the protection of water, soils and such, “A town has protective powers that can be more stringent than the ministry’s … the MELCC is not a ‘decision-making body’ over town by-laws.” We may also assume that a larger governing entity, like the county-level MRC, can make decisions that outweigh those of a village; but, as Young says, “Much of the time they are intended only to echo them.”

Franklin mayor Douglas Brooks and his director general, Louis-Alexandre Monast, say the province’s Guide d’Accueil et de references aux elues et elus municipales (instructions to new councillors and mayors) makes it clear that the primary rule that must be obeyed is that of transparency. This means that they cannot have personal interests in anything that comes before the council. Since many people are related to or know many individuals and enterprises in the Valley, such conflicts of interest are not unusual; the elected member must strictly recluse themselves and withdraw from all discussions, committees, votes etc. concerning the issue.

Monast says, “Another part of the rule of transparency is access to all council business by the public.” Two methods of public access provision are required by law: municipalities must hold meetings open to the public once a month, and there must be a question period for citizens at every meeting. Full minutes of each meeting must also be recorded and provided before the next monthly meeting begins, though in extraordinary cases (like the recent pandemic lockdowns) audio recordings should also be provided. Other methods of communication, from notices at the town hall (the least convenient for the electorate), to entries on websites and Facebook pages, are voluntary.

Like many towns in our MRC, “Franklin has chosen to use all the communications methods available,” says Brooks. It has a bi-monthly hard-copy bulletin, a Facebook page, and a website. Updating these takes time and therefore costs money, but Brooks says in the long run it saves both. “Sending out more information means there will be fewer problems in the future [such as] citizens not understanding or not having gotten notice and requiring office attention.”

Asked if there is any mechanism in place to ensure adherence to the primary rules of transparency, Brooks says, “I think citizens have the option to go to the Ministère des Affaires municipales, especially in cases of conflict of interest.” They may also turn to the Fédération québécoise des municipalités for advice, as well as to lawyers, including pro bono ones like the Centre québécois du droit de l’environnement. Such citizen activism has resulted in several mayors and councils being disciplined in the past which means citizens don’t always have to wait for an election to make their concerns known.

However, participating in the function of a municipality is also up to citizens, says Brooks. “Most of our meetings, you can count the attendees on one hand. People need to take an interest – get involved!” One way participation has been discouraged by some councils in the past is the placement of question periods at the end of the session, meaning citizens had to wait hours to voice their concerns on a particular issue; it would often be 9 or 10 p.m. before they’d have a chance to bring it up – at which point they and the representatives would be tired and not inclined to give the matter full attention.

In fact, each municipality has a duty to establish a “régie de reglementation,” that is, to formally set the time and length of such exchanges with citizens. Today it is common for towns “to have question period first, right after the approval of the last month’s minutes, so citizens can bring up their issues and not have to sit through all the others we have to go over that night,” says Brooks, adding “Once the issue is presented by citizens, it’s discussed within the whole meeting; it can then immediately be made into a resolution (say, to ask the SQ to increase patrols, or to repair a section of road) and we can vote it into existence as a by-law.”

Another way to judge a town’s performance is to consider that “Municipalities have other sources of money besides taxes. People don’t realize we can apply for grants.” The snag is that the town “must have a staff with the time and skills to find the grants and fill out all the paperwork,” says Brooks. “We might only get one out of five we try for, but we got $75,000 this year in extra grants, mostly from provincial sources. That means the new town park didn’t cost Franklin taxpayers a thing, and our electric car-charging station was free from Hydro-Quebec.”

Remuneration for mayors and especially councillors is very low, and the elected officials, with a minimum of four or five long meetings a month, are largely donating their time and must have other jobs to support themselves. The staff, however, which usually consists of a town clerk, a director general, a secretary/treasurer, and an inspector, needs to be paid decent wages so that competent people, who can  manage the budgets and activities properly, are employed. Many towns also keep a municipal lawyer on retainer, because legal issues are always coming up.

“It’s a choice,” Brooks says. “You can have good people who try to get you more resources and might be really creative with the ones you’ve got; or you can say your tax base is too small, so you’re poor and your village can’t afford anything.” As for the upcoming election, this mayor’s advice is, “Before you vote, make sure you’re electing people who know how to serve the community and are ready to learn more than they think they already know.”

Municipal voting day is November 7, but the date to declare candidacy is September 17- October 7.

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