Since the last round of municipal elections in 2016, 10 different towns and villages across Saskatchewan have had more than half of their councils resign around the same time — resulting in a loss of quorum that prevents them from doing business, at least temporarily.
University of Saskatchewan politics professor Joe Garcea says this “trend that’s emerging” should be reason to rethink the efficacy of the overarching municipal structure that’s in place.
While having 10 of Saskatchewan’s 473 towns and villages lose quorum is small as a percentage, it’s indicative of broader issues, Garcea says.
“I think both the provincial and the municipal organizations are going to have to start looking at this because really, it’s a question of the system’s ability of local governance,” he says.
In June and August of 2020, the Town of Craik and the Village of Quinton, lost quorum, respectively.
As is protocol, the provincial Ministry of Government Relations stepped in to make appointments to their councils to keep the municipalities running.
It’s created a unique situation for Bryan Matheson, Lumsden’s long-serving mayor, and one of his town’s councillors, who were asked to help govern Craik, along with a councillor from Bethune.
In doing some homework going back through Craik’s minutes, Matheson says he identified “some internal issues” and has tried to stay out of them.
“I won’t say I’ve expected everything that I’ve seen, but I was not totally shocked,” he says.
“You want to do what’s best for their community, but you have to respect that their community may see things differently than you do.”
Gordon Barnhart, president of the Municipalities of Saskatchewan Association, is intimately familiar with the challenges smaller municipalities face when it comes to recruiting and retaining council members.
He actually took office as a councillor in his Town of Saltcoats in the aftermath of its 2016 municipal election, in which too few candidates ran to fill all the seats. He filled one of those vacancies in a byelection.
Health and family complications leading to a member’s resignation are one thing, Barnhart says, but some people don’t know what they’re getting into, both in terms of the time commitment — and commitment, in general.
“When they ran, they knew it was going to be a four-year term,” he says.
“You’ll have different priorities, but at the end of the day, you have to say, ‘We have to work together.'”
On the other side of the coin, Garcea attributes group resignations, at least in part, to struggles with getting new people interested in municipal politics.
In many small communities across the province, the leadership has been doing the job for years and there is fatigue, Garcea says.
“You’re going to get a certain degree of factionalism develop,” he adds. “And when you get factions, one faction doesn’t like what the other faction is saying or doing and they feel they have no power, they decide to resign.”
Matheson, for his part, says Craik’s current unconventional government is doing its best to prepare the next elected council for what lies ahead.
His advice to that next group: “Do the best for your community … Move forward.”
Saskatchewan’s next round of municipal elections is set for Nov. 9, 2020.