The Municipality of Cumberland is reducing the size of council and how it selects its leader in time for next October’s municipal elections.
Council voted Monday to move to a system that elects a mayor while at the same time opting to reduce the number of elected councillors from 13 to eight.
Following the presentation of a three-month study by planner Nelson Bezanson and junior planner Will Balser, council voted 7-4 in favour of abandoning the warden system of leadership and 6-5 in favour of reducing council’s size.
“There will certainly be more territory for some of us to cover, but as far as the population base and the number of people it will take to do a good job, eight is a workable number,” Deputy Warden Joe van Vulpen said following the vote.
Councillors Don Fletcher, Barb Palmer, Daniel Rector and Ernest Gilbert cast no votes in both instances while Coun. Doug Williams voted against reducing the size to eight, favouring nine.
Warden Al Gillis, the deputy warden and councillors Paul Porter, Marlon Chase and Maryanne Jackson voted in favour of both motions with Williams also voting in favour of electing a mayor.
Councillors Lynne Welton and Mike McLellan were absent.
At present, council elects a warden from within its membership at its first meeting following an election.
“Council has spoken,” Fletcher said after. “I wanted 10, that’s what we had when I came here. We went up to 13 when the towns came onboard, but I could’ve lived with 10. I’m just afraid the people in small communities where I live are going to lose representation.”
Gilbert, a longtime councillor first elected in 1997, believes governance will be more difficult with fewer councillors.
“There are a lot of meetings we have to go to and I don’t think eight is enough to do the job,” he said.
Chase said council was elected three year ago to bring change to the county.
“When I joined council, it had been run the same way for a long time and we had a lot of conversations that we wanted to be more progressive and move forward. This is a move in that direction,” Chase said.
Jackson, who was elected in a municipal by-election following Springhill’s dissolution, supported a larger council size after the amalgamation of both Springhill and Parrsboro but agreed it’s time to change.
“I knew the recommendation was that we go to a smaller council and we’ve done well in Springhill having two councillors. The transition was smooth, but now is the time to make that change and we want to be part of a progressive council,” Jackson said. “I think change is necessary sometimes, the status quo is not always the way to go. This is what the people wanted.”
In the study, Bezanson and Balser looked at the governance review conducted by Stantec in 2015 following the dissolution and amalgamation of Springhill into the county, the Parrsboro governance report following its dissolution prior to the 2016 municipal elections and they compared Cumberland County’s numbers with other similar municipalities across Nova Scotia.
Part of the process was a series of public meetings and surveys with the public overwhelmingly saying it prefers an elected mayor as well as a council size of between eight and 10.
“The public have spoken more clearly on this issue than any other as shown on the number and content of the comments and an overwhelming preference (is to) have council leadership switch to a mayor,” Balser told council.
As for the size of council, Bezanson said the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board allowed the municipality to maintain a larger council, outside the variance of plus or minus 10 per cent, to allow for the transition of Springhill and later Parrsboro into the larger municipality and to ensure the people of those former towns had effective representation during the transition.
Following the Parrsboro governance study, the utility and review board directed Cumberland County to review its electoral boundaries prior to the 2020 election to address the variances that exist.
“The NSUARB approved an increase in the size of council following the Parrsboro dissolution. The wording of this order would suggest that the NSUARB sees this as a temporary measure, meant to ensure stability and an effective voice for Parrsboro residents, not as permission to continue with such a large council,” Bezanson said in the report to council.
In comparing with other municipalities, not including towns or regional municipalities (with the exception of Queens), Bezanson said the average council size is 8.4 elected councillors and pointed out Cumberland County is more than 50 per cent above the average – although he said the county is also largest of the rural municipalities and has a larger population and population density than the average.
The public survey showed 81 per cent of respondents favour a council of 10 or less.
Following the meeting, county CAO Rennie Bugley said planning staff will work on establishing new electoral boundaries in time to submit recommendations to the utility and review board before the Dec. 31 deadline.
He said there will be continued public engagement and it’s likely a proposed electoral map will come to council during a special meeting later this month.