West Nipissing council dysfunction prompts province to intervene

The Ontario government will be monitoring meetings of the West Nipissing council for the rest of the term and is ordering the municipality to fill a council seat that has been vacant for almost two years.

The move comes as disagreements among council have escalated. CEO Jay Barbeau has pulled town staff from meetings because of the toxic environment.

There has been tension since the current council's term began in 2018. Former councillor Jeremy Seguin resigned in July 2020, leaving a vacant council seat that has not been filled.

As reported in January by CTV news, an ongoing issue with Mayor Joanne Savage and the town's chief administrative officer has also caused problems.

A notice of motion from the mayor regarding the CAO appeared to raise personnel issues, something normally discussed in camera under provincial privacy rules.

Wrangling over the issue meant a Jan. 4 meeting was cut short, and no meetings were held for some time after that. Meetings eventually resumed, but on April 6, Savage and three other councillors hired a lawyer to send a letter to the other four councillors, calling on them to put an end what they call "intimidation" and allegations of defamation.

When those four councillors asked to move behind closed doors to get legal advice, it was rejected by the mayor and the other three councillors. So the four left the meeting, effectively ending it because there was no longer a quorum.

At the time, Barbeau told CTV News that "all options are on the table" to try to resolve the infighting between councillors. He also said, if needed, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing could get involved.

Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark wrote the mayor and council April 25, ordering them to fill the vacant council seat.

Clark said the Municipal Act required council to act to fill the vacancy within 60 days, and he reminded them of that obligation in a letter sent in January.

"I stated my expectation that you fulfill that requirement and fill the vacancy as soon as possible," he wrote.

"Council has not done so."

As a result, Clark has appointed a facilitator that will ensure the seat is filled by June 30. He also reminded them that failure to comply with their obligations under the act could result in a $5,000 fine and a ban on holding municipal office for two years.

In response to reports of a "toxic" environment, he said the ministry would be reviewing "the administrative practices, policies, and procedures of the municipality, and to report back on any recommendations to council for improvements."

"This report will be made available to council and the public once completed," Clark wrote.

Plus he is having ministry staff attend council meetings "as an observer for the rest of this council's term."

"I expect that council and staff will provide their full cooperation and assistance to ministry staff and the facilitator," Clark concluded.

The next municipal election in Ontario is in October.