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Council reviews election policies and procedures

- New Corporate Resource Policy and Election Sign Bylaw to come -


by Sylene Argent

Essex Council received Director of Legislative Services/Clerk, Robert Auger’s, report “Election Review of Policies and Procedures,” for informational purposes during the regular meeting held virtually on Monday evening.

  In the Report to Council, Auger notes after a municipal election, it is standard practice to conduct a review of election-related bylaws, policies, and procedures. This review, and its recommendations, will then form the basis of revised or new bylaws and policies that will come to Council for formal adoption at various points over the remainder of this year.

  The goal is to continue to ensure integrity and confidence in the process, he said.

  Auger said he reviewed all correspondence from the 2018 election, the feedback from residents or candidates, and reviewed the policies and bylaws themselves, then compared those policies and bylaws to other municipalities.

  In regards to the “Use of Corporate Resource Policy,” Auger said, it prohibits a candidate from making or receiving any use of Town property or resources for campaign purposes. The goal of the new policy is to come up with a more enhanced, clearer policy. The current policy is ten-years old and is short on specifics. The goal is to better clarify the does and don’ts.

  In the repot, it notes, for example, during the most recent election it was sometimes unclear from the Policy as to what constituted “Town property or Facilities” versus “general public property or facilities.”

  Further enhancements will also be included in respect to Town cellphones. The use of any Town electronic devices to respond to campaign matters or to post or re-post matters on social media relating directly or indirectly to campaign matters, will be prohibited. Included in that will be protocols giving the Town the right to audit such Town-issued electronic devices.

  Further, it is recommended that the Policy be adopted as a formal Bylaw for enforcement.

  In addition, when candidates request information from the Town, there will be protocols in place to restrict who they can get that information from.

  Auger will also recommend a standalone election sign bylaw. The current election sign provisions are contained within the Town’s current Sign Bylaw. Upon review, the provisions in it are not sufficient to address the changing realities of a modern election campaign. A traditional lawn sign is not the only way a candidate can promote themselves. He hopes having a stand alone bylaw for this will make it easier to follow and understand.

  In addition, he said, enforcement needs to be improved in regards to election sign violations. He is recommending the use of an election sign permit process, with fees. He hopes this would provide more tools to handle violations. The number one compliant in the last election was proactive enforcement. He said the Town simply does not have the resources to patrol the streets for 45-days to look for violations, so it is very much complaint-driven.

  With that, he is recommending an “Election Sign Deposit” that the candidate or third party advertiser would pay to the Municipality in return for the issuance of the permit. The election sign deposit – in the proposed amount of $300 for Ward candidates and $500 for an “at large” candidate – would be returned in full where there has been no violation to the election sign bylaw during the campaign. If there are any violations of the stand alone sign bylaw, then fees in the range of $25 to $50 per occurrence would be applied against the deposit together, the Report to Council notes.

  Auger will also recommend an Election Complaint Policy to provide a directional map, for anyone with any election-related complaints. This will hopefully clarify how to file a complaint, where to file a complaint, and who has the responsibility of dealing with the complaint.

  In regards to emergency or pandemic measures, Auger said the Town Clerk has powers, provided under the Municipal Elections Act, to take measures to ensure the integrity of the election. What is lacking are some details, and it is good to look at that, he noted.

  The last section of the Report to Council takes a look at proxy voting. Auger said it is not advisable to comment on the specifics from the 2018 election, because there was (and remains) an ongoing investigation into alleged Municipal Election Act offence surrounding the use of proxy vote/proxy vote forms during the 2018 election, but noted the Town of Essex does not have a lot of control over proxy forms and processes as they are mandated by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and by the Municipal Elections Act.

  While the proxy voting process set out by the Town to date follows those guidelines, a number of complaints were received during the last election. This required staff to review the matter further. Whether or not the complaints received are founded or unfounded, the fact the complaints were received, Auger believes the Town needs to put in increased controls over and above what is required. This will require support from the Province.  

  The Clerk’s office did suggest, through the Report to Council, that for the next municipal election, the Clerk’s Office will only issue the required proxy vote form directly to qualified electors, who wish to appoint another person to vote on their behalf. If the qualified elector is not able to attend Town Hall to obtain the required form, then it may be mailed directly to the elector’s address.

  This report is a framework for going forward, Auger said. The report adds that in September, a new Election Complaints Policy will come forward. In September/October, a new “Use of Corporate Resources Policy” with adopting Bylaw will be presented to Council. In October/November, a new Election Sign bylaw with Election Sign permit provisions will be presented. And, in December, a revised Municipal Election Procedures Policy with additional Emergency guidelines and additional proxy vote procedures will come forward.

  Councillor Joe Garon said this report is a good start. He thinks the Town is doing its best to tighten up policies and make candidates accountable. No one policy, no matter how comprehensive, will be able to capture and interpret all potential scenarios.

  “We can make all the changes we want, but if we can’t enforce it, and there’s no penalties behind it, then it is all for not,” Garon noted. He asked, for instance, what penalties should be issued for violations. Although Auger recommended a retainer for signs, which sounds good, but Garon believes some may forfeit dollars in an attempt to get more votes. Signs, are not nearly effective as going to the door and knocking on them, he said. He would be okay with doing away with signs all together.

  Councillor Vander Doelen said a lot of loose ends seem to be tied up with the coming reports. He does find it strange that Auger said if there are complaints, whether they are founded or not, something has to be done. If a complaint is unfounded, it should be dismissed. He didn’t see anything to oppose in regards to the minor tweaks recommended.

  As a reporter, he said, he covered likely 50 elections and doesn’t think there was one election were sign complaints did not come forward. Some will try to break sign rules. He suggested policing the issue.

  Mayor Larry Snively, when calling upon Councillor Sherry Bond to speak to the issue said she was, “Smiling ear to ear to ear to ear. You can’t wait to get to the media, so you are next.”

  Bondy has been vocal about the proxy issue.

  Bondy responded she believed that comment was uncalled for as the media call her and Councillor Vader Doelen about the issue.

  Bondy said she likes going to the polling stations. The more opportunities given to people to vote, the better. In the next election, she would like to see advanced polls in McGregor and Colchester in addition to the ones held in Essex and Harrow Centres. She would also be in favour of hiring extra staff to police signs if needed.

  She said there was confusion in the last election when it comes to signs. She thinks that if administration have to confiscate a sign because it was put in an illegal area, that sign should be confiscated. She also thinks the Town website should have an election offender’s list, which may deter candidates from breaking the rules.

In terms of the proxy votes, she would love to send a letter to the province soon to note the Town of Essex wants to make proxy sheets only available at the Clerk’s Office.

Councillor Steve Bjorkman said there needs to be rules to follow and repercussions for not following them. He likes the idea of a stand alone sign bylaw because it could be tied to provincial and federal elections. This would create consistency and make it easier to follow.

  Bjorkman said if a candidate stood in front of a gateway sign to note he or she wants to be mayor of the Town, it is a public sign and he does not see any reason to not be able to do that.

  Councillor Morley Bowman said election signs have been an issue for many years. The thing that should be remembered are they are tools for elections. The idea to tighten regulations tends to make it more palatable for everyone.

© 2020 The Essex Free Press ltd.

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