By Jenn Watt
Should Highlands East change the way it chooses its deputy mayor? A recent consultant’s report suggested that switching from a deputy mayor selected from among council members to one elected by the population would create “a stronger ‘one team’ mentality within council.” But in a municipality as large as Highlands East with such a small tax base, does it make sense?
According to the organizational review created by Savino Human Resources Partners, fewer than 3,400 people live in Highlands East full time, residing in a 758-square kilometre geographical area that also welcomes more than 13,000 seasonal visitors.
Currently, voters elect four ward councillors and one mayor, then when council convenes, those councillors select a deputy mayor from among their ranks. The role of the deputy mayor is to preside over the affairs of council and in public engagements in the absence of the mayor. The deputy mayor also becomes a county councillor.
The report provided to the media does not include the section reflecting the interviews and survey results from staff and council used as a basis for their suggestions, but potentially, an elected deputy mayor would make for a more cohesive council because councillors wouldn’t be asked to vote for the deputy, which might lead to feelings of animosity between the contenders and their supporters.
It would also allow voters more choice over who represents them, which really is a much better reason to make such a change, especially given whoever is deputy makes up one-half of the municipality’s representation at the county table.
Where it gets tricky, however, is the implementation. Would Highlands East create an entirely new council role, putting six members around the table and creating the additional expense – a little more than $16,000 a year – for taxpayers?
Alternately, the deputy mayor could become its own position and the wards could be reduced from four to three, allowing the fourth position at the council table to be the deputy mayor, elected by all voters.
Maybe there are other ways around it at the ballot box. That’s a question for experts in municipal affairs.
What is important is that those around the council table, both in Highlands East and at county council, represent the voters.
If the deputy mayor role were restricted to Highlands East only, someone who chaired meetings when the mayor was away and attended funding announcements, the position could be filled by any councillor. In some municipalities, councillors take on the task on a rotating schedule for just that reason.
But in Highlands East, the deputy is also on county council, making decisions on behalf of all the people of the municipality.
It follows that all the people of the municipality should have a say in who that person is.