Election gives West Nipissing chance to move on from years of council in-fighting
Only 4 of the 9 people currently around the council table want to return for another 4 years
After two years of watching their town council bicker and call each other names, the voters of West Nipissing were eerily quiet during a candidates' debate in Sturgeon Falls Monday night.
The crowd of more than 200— significantly more than the few dozen who came out for a provincial election debate in the spring— sat and listened patiently for over two hours as those hoping to serve on the next council for the municipality of 14,000 calmly laid out their ideas.
"I thought it was going to be, excuse the word, a pissing match. And it was not," said Dan Roveda, one of the most outspoken councillors during the in-fighting, now running for mayor.
"This was a pleasant event and I think we all have proven that we can all work together."
But the political newcomers running against Roveda say the best way to do that is to get new faces around the council table, including in the big chair.
"I'm not entangled with the conflicts of the current council," said mayoral candidate Kathleen Thorne Rochon, whose campaign slogan is "Let's put the unity back in community."
"To cure the problems that we've seen at council, it's going to take a seismic shift and it's going to take more than shuffling the chairs."
Lavigne farmer Dave Lewington says he would try to get to the root of the impasse that saw council go months without holding formal meetings, forcing the provincial government to intervene.
"Real dedication admits that there are problems that need addressing. Not to pretend that the past didn't happen and move forward regardless of what caused those problems," said Lewington.
Candidates did talk about the need for more housing in West Nipissing, the under-discussed problem of drug abuse in the largely rural community and hopes for redeveloping the huge empty lot in Sturgeon Falls left when the paper mill closed 20 years ago.
But moving past the last four years is clearly the top issue.
"The elephant in the room is obviously the ongoing council that is there right now," said Ward 2 council candidate Roch St. Louis.
"Obviously the way for me to try to help and assist and resolve that is by running for council."
"If elected to council, I won't ever be on one side of the table, but I promise to always show up at the table," Ward 1 hopeful Réjean Venne told the crowd.
"I promise to vote for the idea brought to the table, not for or against the particular councillor," said Ward 1 council candidate Kris Rivard, who ran for the Green Party in the recent provincial election.
Lise Senecal served several terms on West Nipissing council in the 1990s and returned for the last four years, but admits she considered resigning because of the toxic environment, which has seen municipal staff restricted from attending council meetings in order to protect their mental health.
"People are fed up and they been saying for the last two years everybody should change and I agree with that," she said.
"Because none of us did the job they're supposed to do, which is put the municipality first."
But Senecal, who prides herself on speaking her mind, worries that the new council might be too focused on always agreeing with each other.
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"I'm concerned about the next one, because you might have a very good quiet council and everything, but that doesn't mean it will be better," she said.
"But it won't be me sitting there. I'll pay my tax, that's what I'm going to do."
Sturgeon Falls voter Michel Gervais, who moderates the West Nipissing Municipal Action Group on Facebook, wishes the candidates would talk more about what they will do, rather than what the last council didn't do.
"There is little substance, I mean, there is some for sure, but we're just focusing on council's problems," he said.
"People are passionate, people are talking about it, which I think is still good. There is a sense of hopelessness though, unfortunately."