In bypassing the most obvious and most obviously democratic method for filling a vacant seat, Woolwich council has done residents an obvious disservice.
Dan Holt was the first runner-up in the 2014 election, garnering more than a thousand votes in Ward 1, the third highest after Scott Hahn, whose resignation prompted this issue, and Patrick Merlihan. He’s still interested in filling the post, so it was a viable option. Instead, council opted for some as-yet-unknown selection process, soliciting applications from the public until February 16.
It was a split vote, with Murray Martin and Larry Shantz opting to open things up, while Mark Bauman and Merlihan suggesting Holt should be selected. Mayor Sandy Shantz broke the tie in favour of a public process.
Unfortunately, the three councillors offered up no explanation, let alone a rationale for their decision at the time, though attempted to do so when contacted subsequently.
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The mayor noted she had been contacted by three people interested in the post, one of whom had previously served on council. “I want to give due consideration to all who may be interested, especially with the timing, so we can make a good fit to get on with the business of the township in the short time we have left,” she said in an email.
That sentiment was echoed by Martin, with Coun. Shantz saying he wanted to keep the options open, though noting he would have preferred to keep the seat vacant for the remainder of the term.
It remains unclear, however, what they hope to achieve that the last election did not.
The choice means five councillors will select a new colleague rather than the people of Elmira, 1,036 of whom chose Holt in 2014. On what basis they’ll be sorting through the application/interview process remains to be seen.
No matter what, it will be less democratic than picking Holt.
Moreover, the process is rife with pitfalls, including charges of bias, self-serving decisions or simple pettiness. Glaringly, the person selected will have something of a leg up on the competition if he or she opts to run in this fall’s municipal election – incumbents typically have an advantage. While that would be true of Holt, at least there’s a clear case for his selection.
Appointing anybody else will lead to some jeopardy for a council that is already at times seen as too sycophantic to the bureaucratic process and not representative of the public good. Picking someone based on some perceived notion of harmony is not the ideal route … nor one that should even be considered.
If the township wants to avoid that issue entirely, it could go with a placeholder: someone who’ll fill the vacancy, as required by provincial decree, but not run in the election. That would be the fairest option in the council-gets-to-choose process. A former councillor, for instance, would require less time to get up to speed than would others, with more of a chance to contribute as a voice for Elmira residents around the table.
Councillors could also rethink last week’s vote, opting now to appoint Holt to the seat, despite wasting some small amount of time and money with the open-application process they initiated.