Cumberland byelection on hold during state of emergency
Former councillor Stephen Blais left his seat 2 months ago, won't be replaced soon
Ottawa city council unanimously agreed Wednesday to defer the byelection in Cumberland ward until after the provincial state of emergency is lifted, reasoning restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic would make it virtually impossible for candidates to campaign or for voters to cast a ballot.
In a report to council, city clerk Rick O'Connor recognized that while deferring the byelection would mean residents of the east-end ward would go an additional three to six months without representation at city hall, "this approach strikes a balance between holding a democratic election while adhering to the requirements of the Provincial Emergency Order and the OPH-recommended health and safety protocols and guidelines."
The council seat was vacated shortly after former councillor Stephen Blais was elected to Queen's Park in a provincial byelection for the riding of Orléans in February. Council formally declared the seat vacant on March 25 — the same day Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency for the city due to the pandemic.
Under the Municipal Act, council could either take the highly unusual step of appointing a replacement councillor, or take the more routine route of calling a byelection. But under the act, there are time limits around having a byelection. According to a report from city clerk Rick O'Connor, given that the Cumberland seat was declared vacant on March 25, the latest the election could be held would be Aug. 31.
That isn't feasible during these unprecedented times. The recent prohibition on gatherings of more than five people, and strong recommendations for people to stay two metres apart, would make it impossible for candidates to engage in normal electioneering activities, such as campaigning door-to-door, attending rallies and debates, or even meeting with their volunteers.
The same physical distancing restrictions would make it difficult for the city to hold voting days — it would usually hold one advance poll before the actual byelection — and many of the buildings where voting usually takes place, like schools and public libraries, are closed down. As well, the city isn't sure it would have enough staff to run an election given the current staffing situation.
Normal rules suspended
However, the order declaring the province's state of emergency suspends "any limitation period" and even "any period of time within which a step must be taken in any proceeding" in any statute for as long as the emergency lasts. The order also gives the discretion for suspending timelines to the "decision-maker responsible for the proceeding," which, in the case of the byelection, would be council.
As well, the Municipal Elections Act allows the city clerk to "declare an emergency if he or she is of the opinion that circumstances have arisen that are likely to prevent the election being conducted in accordance with this Act."
In the meantime, councillors Matthew Luloff, Laura Dudas and George Darouze have been delegated by council to help the residents of Cumberland ward with official issues such as planning matters.