St. Catharines grapples with its lack of diverse local political representation
Help Wanted: An individual to fill a vacancy on St. Catharines City Council. Must be a resident, Canadian citizen and at least 18 years of age.
Please outline your experience, interest and priorities, though previous election experience is not a must. Council may also consider any unique skills and perspectives that you present, ideally, perspectives that align with those of the current Council.
Short-listed candidates will be required to make a five minute presentation to Council.
The “advertisement” noted above is not real but it could be, as a result of St. Catharines Council’s recent decision to pass a new Council Vacancy Policy.
When a municipal council has a vacancy between elections, the Municipal Act outlines how the empty seat can be filled. A by-election must be called if the mayor’s chair becomes vacant, unless it is after March 31 in a municipal election year.
The calling of a by-election for a vacancy on (Regional or) city council, however, is not mandatory. Council can appoint a person to fill the vacancy. While it is common practice for councils to appoint runners-up from the previous municipal election, that also is not mandatory. Council can appoint anyone, as long as they meet the general requirements to run for office under the Municipal Elections Act, even if they have never previously run for municipal office.
During the 2018 to 2022 council term, St. Catharines council twice had to consider how to fill a vacancy but not without some controversy.
In October 2021, Regional Councillor from St. Catharines, Sandie Bellows passed away. While not a city council vacancy, per se, the Region has a policy that states that it “shall request that the lower-tier municipality advise of its recommended method of filling the vacancy.”
At a meeting on December 13, 2021, St. Catharines council considered the Region’s request. With less than a year left in the council term, the possibility of a by-election was a non-starter. Clerks staff recommended that the vacancy be filled by appointment, by going to the next-placed finisher for the office of Regional Councillor in the 2018 Municipal Election, who was Mike Britton, who served as one of the two St. George’s Ward councillors from 2014 to 2018.
The recommendation was in keeping with a policy on filling vacancies developed in 2014 by an ad-hoc committee of council members. The 2014 policy gave council members the discretion to consider recommending to the Region the appointment of the next-placed finisher, who received, at least, 70 percent of the votes of the sixth placed finisher for Regional Council. In the last year of the Council term, however, the appointment of the next placed finisher receiving at least 70 percent of the votes was supposed to be mandatory, as per the policy. Britton received 93.5 percent of the sixth placed finisher’s total votes.
At the December 2021 meeting, the validity of the 2014 policy was called into question because the policy was supposed to be a guideline and not necessarily bind future councils. There was also debate on whether the vacancy was actually happening in the last year of the council term, despite the opinion of the City clerk that the beginning of the last year of the term had already commenced in November.
With the meeting taking place during COVID, with half the councillors participating remotely and the others well spaced in the chamber, there was discussion on how the world had changed in the three years since the last municipal election. Kerrie Porter, a councillor at the time, mused that there was no way of knowing a potential appointee’s opinion on recent emerging issues such as public health measures, regional transit, and affordable housing.
With allusions being made to the potential appointee, Mike Britton, also a councillor at the time, and future Mayor Mat Siscoe moved that council go into closed session regarding “personal matters about an identifiable individual”.
Approximately 75 minutes later council emerged from their closed door session and Lori Littleton, a councillor at the time, gave an impassioned speech on how an appointment should take into account the need for equity and diversity, especially in light of the loss of a female elected representative, which spurred a friendly amendment from councillor Greg Miller, unanimously approved, that City staff work with equity-seeking groups to update the Council Vacancy Policy.
A formal motion, in keeping with the 2014 policy, to recommend to the Region the appointment of Mr. Britton was narrowly defeated in a 7-6 vote. Councillor Porter then moved a motion that council recommend to the Region that sitting city councillor Mat Siscoe be appointed and that City staff reach out to the third-place candidate for the St. Patrick’s Ward from the 2018 Municipal Election, Robin McPherson, to determine their interest in replacing Siscoe on city council for the remainder of the term of city council, which, in essence, followed the policy that council disregarded in recommending councillor Siscoe to the Region.
The motion was approved by the 10-3 vote and Robin McPherson confirmed interest and was appointed to council. McPherson subsequently retained one of the two St. Patrick’s Ward seats in the 2022 municipal election.
The seemingly sudden emergence of councillor Siscoe as a candidate for the Regional vacancy prompted a complaint to the Integrity Commissioner alleging that Siscoe and the mayor at the time, Walter Sendzik, had contravened the City’s Code of Conduct by participating in a “clearly orchestrated conspiracy” to subvert the application of the Council’s Vacancy Policy to have the councillor appointed to Regional council. While Siscoe acknowledged having discussions with Sendzik and another councillor on how to fill the Regional vacancy, the Integrity Commissioner did not find the actions constituted violations of the Code of Conduct, while also noting that he had no authority to question council votes or decisions.
As for Mike Britton, he did eventually end up on Regional council, when St. Catharines representative George Darte resigned at the end of March 2022, and St. Catharines council voted to recommend his appointment. Only councillor Miller remained opposed to Britton’s appointment arguing that council was not looking for an equity seeking candidate, as had been discussed during the December 2021 debate.
With the aforementioned history, a revised Council Vacancy Policy came before St. Catharines council almost two years after the issue had been referred to staff.
The staff report states that “reference was made that the policy should provide an opportunity for council to evaluate future appointees with regard to experience and priorities along with an opportunity to increase equity and diverse representation among members.” Staff did consult with the City’s Anti-Racism, Equity and Inclusion and LGBTQ2+ Advisory Committees in formulating the policy.
The staff report also posits that the revised policy “is accountable, transparent and provides flexibility in filling vacancies for consideration” and under the stated scope of the policy, “Council will be mindful of the diverse policy of the City of St. Catharines and will seek to reflect that diversity in its appointments.”
The revised policy, however, does not differ significantly from the 2014 policy. In keeping with the authority provided to municipal councils under the Municipal Act, council’s choices remain to hold a by-election, depending on the timeframe within the council term, or appoint a qualified elector.
The revised policy still allows for council to appoint the runner-up who meets the suggested 70 percent of the votes of the previous placed finisher, depending on the office. Looking at the 2022 election results, the regional council office and half of the St. Catharines wards have runners-up that meet the percentage threshold, half of the wards do not.
The revised policy now explicitly states that a city councillor could be recommended to regional council.
If council were to consider an appointment of someone other than a runner up, the process has been slightly changed. In both cases, the City would advertise seeking qualified individuals interested in filling the vacancy. Under the 2014 policy, an interview committee of four council members, including the Mayor, would have been struck with a confidential recommendation of the preferred candidate forwarded to council.
The new policy contemplates that at a council meeting, the candidates’ names would be read and council could choose to short list who they wish to be considered for appointment. The shortlisted candidates would be invited to make a five-minute presentation at a council meeting. Following the presentation, council would commence voting, and in a process akin to a political party leadership vote, a candidate would only be successful if they achieved more than 50 percent of the vote, with last placed candidates dropping off, with each round of voting until the 50 percent is reached.
Similar to the debate in 2021, the debate at a council meeting last month, on November 27, elicited passionate opinions related to the possibility of council appointing an individual who did not contest the previous municipal election.
Long-time Councillor Joe Kushner spoke first after having the reported lifted from the consent agenda for discussion:
“[W]e have had a policy based on democratic voting, that has served us well in the past. If you allow councillors to decide, there is a possibility that choices will be based on personalities and whether they (the potential appointee) think like us.”
Mayor Mat Siscoe politely pushed back arguing that it was an unfair characterization of past vacancy debates, though he did concede that “personal feelings” may have entered into past discussions on filling vacant positions.
The Mayor’s comment prompted the following exchange:
Councillor Kushner: “Mr. Mayor, with all due respect, I disagree.”
Mayor Siscoe: “As we are all allowed to do and I appreciate that.”
Councillor Greg Miller echoed the Mayor’s comment that past debates were not about “getting (appointees) in line with how we (council) think” but were around “a person’s integrity”. Miller, supporting staff’s report, argued that with interest in municipal politics at its nadir, being able to appoint diverse candidates that reflected the city’s composition may lead to more residents being engaged.
The opportunity for by-elections was also discussed with Mayor Siscoe indicating he would be happy to see by-elections called in all cases if that was council’s wish but the cost to hold by-elections could be viewed as an unnecessary expense. City Clerk Kristen Sullivan was reluctant to quote an estimated cost but when pressed felt that $75,000, not including staff time, would be the minimum.
Council members expressed divergent views on what was democratic or anti-democratic. Some felt that appointing an individual who had not run in the previous municipal election was clearly undemocratic, while the Mayor pointed out that the democratically elected provincial legislature had provided municipal councils with the legislative authority to make such appointments.
When the motion was eventually called to approve the revised Council Vacancy Policy it passed with the following vote:
Yeas: Councillors McPherson, Miller, Phillips, Ratzlaff, Townsend, Lindal, and Mayor Siscoe.
Nays: Councillors Stevens, Williamson, Dodge, Garcia, and Kushner.
Earlier in the debate, an attempt to rank the various options (by-election, appointment of the runner-up, someone other than a runner up) by preference was met with resistance by staff. City Clerk Sullivan indicated that the diversity committees consulted had considered such rankings but felt it was “counter intuitive” to the policy’s purpose of providing council with options.
With no particular course of action mandatory, it is easy to imagine that the revised policy will engender similar debates in the future along the lines of the council vote.
Past runner-up appointee, Councillor McPherson was of the opinion that future appointments would still likely go to the runner up but the policy provided other options, if circumstances warranted.
During the 2018-2022 municipal council term, other than the two St. Catharines regional council vacancies, there were only three vacancies that occurred among Niagara’s 12 lower-tier municipalities. Grimsby and West Lincoln councils appointed runners-up to fill their member vacancies, while the Town of Pelham held a by-election for a vacancy.
Based on probabilities, there is no guarantee St. Catharines council will have to grapple with a vacancy anytime soon but council wannabees in the St. Georges, Grantham and Port Dalhousie wards may want to spruce up their resumes.
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