A by-election is off the table for another week as Fort Simpson councillors take time to consider how they’ll fill a gap after Mike Rowe resigned his seat.
Mike Drake, regional superintendent for the NWT’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, said the territory’s legislation gives the village three options.
“It’s going to be a year and a half until the next election and that’s an awful long time to leave it vacant, for starters,” Drake told councillors at their Monday meeting.
“I don’t recommend that one.”
Drake told council the second option is appointing any eligible voter, though he cautioned against that option, too.
“While that’s totally legal, it may not be considered by a lot of folks to be very democratic,” said Drake. “I’ve heard that echoed many times over my time [as] deputy chief municipal electoral officer for the last 15 years.”
The third option is holding a by-election, though that presents difficulties during a pandemic.
“If we said OK, we’re going to hold elections, we’re going to do it right now,” Mayor Sean Whelly asked Drake, “what are we… about six weeks from that actually coming to fruition?”
“No, it wouldn’t take that long,” said Drake. “It depends on what you want to do. It could be a month.”
Voters ‘even less inclined’ in a pandemic
Councillor Muaz Hassan expressed doubt that the pandemic situation in June would make holding a by-election any easier.
Hassan supported appointing Randy Sibbeston, who was the unsuccessful candidate with the most votes in the last election. He argued it is unlikely that the same number who voted for Sibbeston (he received 199 votes in 2018) would show up at a by-election this summer.
“You know, I believe we’re being very optimistic that things are going to be better,” he said. “Are we – in the by-election – expecting that we have [the same number of] people who are going to come and vote for the by-election? I doubt it.”
Whelly agreed voter turnout at by-elections is usually low, adding the novel coronavirus threat could mean an even lower turnout.
“I would imagine if the Covid restrictions were in place to any degree, people would feel even less inclined to vote,” he said. “People aren’t going to put themselves in even a minimal amount of risk for civic politics.”
Councillor Moreau said he was not opposed to appointing a candidate from the last election.
Some council members, however, asked for a week to consider the options.
When Councillor Groat put forward a motion to hold a by-election for the vacant council position, at the earliest possible date in accordance with the chief public health officer’s directives, it was voted down.
Council voted four against and three in favour. Councillors will now meet again next Monday to discuss options and decide on a course of action.
Correction: April 29, 2020 – 15:17 MT. This article initially stated that Mike Drake gave the second option as appointing the unsuccessful candidate with the most votes from the 2018 municipal election. In fact, Drake said the second option is appointing any eligible voter as a councillor – they don’t have to have stood for election in the past. (This is outlined in Section 47 of the Local Authorities Elections Act.)