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Committee endorses appointment to fill London, Ont.’s Ward 13 vacancy

London City Hall on June 14, 2017. Matthew Trevithick / Global News

A committee in London, Ont., has voted narrowly to recommend city council appoint someone to fill the vacant Ward 13 seat and have endorsed a candidate to take over.

The Corporate Services Committee met on Tuesday to discuss the next steps following former Ward 13 Coun. Arielle Kayabaga’s resignation, which arrived soon after she was elected as member of parliament for London West during the 2021 general election.

Read more: By-election? Appointment? Vacant London, Ont. city council seat sparks debate

Before the discussion could get underway, Ward 6 Coun. Phil Squire announced his resignation from council, effective Oct. 7, 2021.

The shock announcement came after Squire learned on Friday that his appointment to the provincial Consent and Capacity Board, which also took place on Friday, would bar him from serving on council.

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While the committee voted to endorse declaring Ward 6 vacant, members decided to refer any discussion related to how to fill the seat until council’s next meeting later this month, due in part to the announcement coming as a surprise.

Click to play video: 'Phil Squire announces resignation as Ward 6 London, Ont. city councillor' Phil Squire announces resignation as Ward 6 London, Ont. city councillor
Phil Squire announces resignation as Ward 6 London, Ont. city councillor – Oct 12, 2021

As for the vacant Ward 13, the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting presented committee members with a report from city staff that recommended appointing someone to fill the empty seat rather than hold a by-election.

Keeping in mind that London’s next municipal election is set for Oct. 24, 2022, city staff said a by-election “would result in the vacancy not being filled until early February 2022, three months before nominations open for the regular election.”

“Should a by-election be held, resources in the City Clerk’s Office that will be focusing on preparing for the regular election, will also need to focus on preparing for a by-election. This will be challenging from a resources and timing perspective,” the report said.

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City staff added that the estimated cost of a by-election ranges between $165,000 and $180,000, whereas the cost of the appointment process is estimated to be between $3,000 and $3,500. Both of these processes would be paid for by reserve funds intended for elections.

The agenda for Tuesday’s meeting also contained 66 letters from citizens, all which of asked that John Fyfe-Millar, the runner-up to Kayabaga in the 2018 municipal election, be appointed as Ward 13’s next councillor.

Fyfe-Millar was eliminated in the seventh round of counts in the ranked ballot election with 2,186 votes to Kayabaga’s 2,325. Kayabaga would win the Ward 13 race with a total of 2,804 votes.

Of the letters that vouched for Fyfe-Millar’s appointment, more than half appeared to have contained a copy-and-pasted list of reasons supporting his nomination.

Read more: Coun. Phil Squire announces resignation from London City Council

Mayor Ed Holder opened the discussion with a motion that committee endorse the appointment process for filling the vacant seat while also recommending that Fyfe-Millar be named Ward 13’s next councillor.

Councillors then engaged in a near hourlong debate over which process should be used to fill the seat.

Holder cited the seat’s lack of representation since mid-August, when Kayabaga took a leave of absence to focus on her federal campaign, for his opposition to a by-election.

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“As noted in the staff report, if we choose to hold a by-election, the vacancy will not be filled until early February of next year, that’s six months without representation in Ward 13,” Holder said, adding that the estimated cost and resource strain of a by-election also contribute to his opposition.

Ward 1 Coun. van Holst seconded the motion, adding that he agrees with Holder’s reasons for supporting an appointment and supports nominating Fyfe-Millar, tied in part to his runner-up finish during London’s ranked ballot election in 2018.

Read more: Report highlights success of ranked ballots — scrapped by Ford government — in London, Ont.

Ward 12 Coun. Elizabeth Peloza, one of two committee members who opposed Holder’s motion, took issue with the use of the ranked ballot results to determine an appointee, adding that some wards saw a contest between only two candidates.

“The election was over 1000 days ago, much has changed since then,” said Peloza.

“It’s great that some members of the community have already written in, but I also have members of the community writing in behind the scenes of some people saying they would like to be considered and would not seek re-election … I have some concerns about where we’re at for transparency and process.”

Deputy Mayor and Ward 7 Coun. Josh Morgan lent support to Holder’s motion, but noted “this is a very challenging situation for a sitting council to be in.”

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Morgan said there are two arguments to be made when it comes to whether an appointee to council should have the ability to seek re-election.

“One is someone shouldn’t be able to run again because we don’t want to give an unfair advantage, the other argument is you want someone to be held to account by the electorate,” said Morgan.

“I know that legally we can’t forbid someone from running, and so I err on the side of not worrying about whether the person is going to run again or not.”

Read more: Canada election saw 62% voter turnout amid COVID-19 challenges

Committee chair and Ward 5 Coun. Maureen Cassidy was the only other committee member who voted against Holder’s motion.

She said that while a by-election “is the most open, the most honest, the most transparent way to fill this seat, it may not be the most practical”, given a historically low voter turnout in Ward 13 and the likelihood that doing so could cause voter fatigue and confusion.

“Having said all that, I do not support the mayor’s motion. I fundamentally disagree that this is the point of ranked ballots … ranked ballots are meant to give the winning candidate a strong mandate from the voters in that ward,” Cassidy said.

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“(Fyfe-Millar) has fine qualities, he has qualifications, that does not mean we take 70 letters that people have written, and use 70 letters from 70 people out of more than 20,000 people in the ward and 70 people get to sway this council to determine who’s going to fill this vacant seat.”

Cassidy added that the appointee would not have as much to be held accountable for if they seek re-election due to a shorter term, thereby giving Ward 13’s next councillor “the advantage of incumbency, but not the handicap that comes with incumbency.”

“Having a former councillor, or somebody with municipal experience, come in with hopefully what would be a consensus from this council, would be a steady hand for the few remaining months of this term of office,” said Cassidy, adding that council should ask the appointee to not seek re-election.

Read more: COVID-19: Vaccine policy for London, Ont. councillors earns final approval

The debate also saw input from councillors who do not sit on the committee, but visited the meeting to chime in.

Ward 2 Coun. Shawn Lewis said he would support Holder’s motion, adding that a re-election campaign would hold an appointee accountable. He also voiced opposition to restricting appointees to someone who previously served on council, noting that the pool of candidates would be councillors who served before the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Ward 9 Coun. Anna Hopkins and Ward 11 Coun. Stephen Turner both opposed Holder’s motion.

Hopkins said the motion would “politicize the next municipal election,” adding that a by-election would the ideal option.

Turner voiced concerns with seeing Fyfe-Millar’s name “thrown right out of the gates” and said “the only democratic way of seating somebody at council is through by-election.”

Ward 4 Coun. Jesse Helmer vouched for an appointment process due to the timeline associated with a by-election, but said he’d want council to appoint a former councillor who doesn’t plan on seeking re-election.

The committee voted 3-2 in supporting of Holder’s motion. Supporting votes came from Holder, Morgan and van Holst, with Cassidy and Peloza voting against.

City council will have the final say on the matter when it meets on Oct. 26.

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