Lakeland Ridges residents still seeking clarity

by | Mar 28, 2024

Byelection will replace vacant mayor and council positions on the still-suspended council

Lakeland Ridges voters may have a chance on May 6 to elect a new mayor and fill two empty Ward 4 council seats. However, it remains unclear what information voters will have when and if they head to the polls.

Even as the province officials confirmed the resignations of Mayor Tanya Cloutier and Councillors Mike Furrow and Mark Grant and Election NB listed the vacant positions on its May 6 election list, the future of Lakeland Ridges suspended council remains unclear.

The council for the amalgamated rural community of Lakeland Ridges, formed from the former villages of Meductic and Canterbury and the local service districts of Canterbury, North Lake, Benton and Debec, remains under suspension since last July. The Department of Environment and Local Government could not confirm whether the Commissioner of Municipal Affairs will reinstate the remaining council members before the May byelection.

Department spokesperson Clarissa Anderson provided a two-sentence statement when asked for clarification.

“We can confirm that the seats will be filled through the Elections NB byelection process,” she said. “Next steps in relation to the supervision remain under consideration.”

Currently, appointed supervisor Steve Manuel, a former Meductic Mayor, oversees the day-to-day operation of Lakeland Ridges’ staff. He is the third supervisor appointed to the role, succeeding Michael Blaney and Greg Lutes.

Manuel took over the supervisory role effective Feb. 16.

The remaining council members did not immediately welcome Manual’s appointment, releasing a statement suggesting that the former Meductic mayor had publicly criticized council members in the past.

Deputy Mayor Ross Stairs and the five remaining council members distributed an open letter on March 11 to Lakeland Ridges residents outlining their concerns.

The letter said Lutes had an extensive department-approved transition plan in place before his removal and appeared close to resolving the issues and ending the suspension.

“Mr. Manuel may have been the Mayor of Meductic and a councillor over a 15-year period, however in this particular scenario, I wouldn’t call him independent and without bias,” Stairs and the others stated in the March 11 letter to constituents.

The letter also stated that the supervisor failed to communicate with the suspended council members in the first three weeks following Manuel’s appointment.

Stairs said that Lutes, during his extensive time as supervisor, implemented an extensive transition plan to allow the council to return to its elected duties.

The letter from the suspended councillors added that Lutes planned to hold meetings in each ward to detail the problems that led to the council’s suspension and outline steps for its return. In Lutes’s absence, the remaining councillors noted that they would hold public meetings if warranted.

Speaking with the River Valley Sun on March 23, Stairs said the remaining councillors are now working with the new supervisor towards a resolution to the current problems. With those efforts underway and the upcoming byelection, Stairs said he preferred to let the ongoing process work before commenting further.

Still, the turmoil has left Lakeland Ridges voters confused and frustrated. Social media is ripe with rumours, innuendo and blame as residents express various opinions.

Following the suspension of the council and appointment of the first supervisor, the province undertook an extensive investigation and issued a detailed report to the Commissioner of Municipal Affairs.

While the department didn’t release specific details and resolutions to the public, its report outlined widespread dysfunction with the council. This eventually led to municipal staff taking medical leave, and both have since returned to work.

The report indicated a snowball effect of minor problems becoming significant dysfunction, quickly dividing council members.

“In this frustrating environment, minor criticisms and mistakes made by individual members of council, the mayor, and the staff were amplified.,” the report noted. “Two camps became established with a coalition of five openly organizing outside of council meetings. The Inspector found that violations of the Code of Conduct and actions contrary to the Procedural By-law were likely to have occurred. The nine members of council and two staff members similarly reported numerous perceived violations to the supervisor. Complaints were widespread and not limited to a few individuals.”

The deep divisions within the council translated into division and confusion among residents. Some residents, like Bill Boone of North Lake, believe those divisions will continue to fester.

“(I’m) doubtful if you could get a consensus on how the situation should or could have been handled,” he stated in an email to the River Valley Sun. “Everyone has an expert opinion; no two of them the same.”

Boone believes all parties involved contributed to the fiasco but suggests the problems don’t all lay at the feet of Lakeland Ridges’ elected officials and staff.

“The government, in my not so humble opinion, dropped the ball right at the beginning by not providing a detailed training session between the election and the creation on Jan. 1,” he said. “Then the lack of information from the minister, commissioner, investigator and supervisor created a vacuum that had to be filled by rumour, accusations and innuendos. (It) just made a bad situation worse.”

Debec resident Donna Carson worked with the former mayor, Lakeland Ridges staff, Manuel and many councillors in roles with the River Valley ATV Club, the Debec Rec Council and other organizations. She doesn’t see a clear path forward for the council.

She suggested the current council be declared defunct and “start over again.”

As for the upcoming byelection, Carson questions why anyone would want to be part of the ongoing dysfunction.

Carson said the supervisor and staff continue to run the municipal government, noting Manuel and CAO Susie Patterson recently met with the Debec Rec Council to explain the availability of potential grant funds.

Carson is also sad to see Mayor Cloutier resign. She called her a dedicated community leader for Canterbury and the entire region. She said Cloutier strongly supported the recreation council and the ATV Club.

While many of the elected councillors had previous municipal experience, they faced a much larger and more complicated mandate in Lakeland Ridges.

“Experience is of no value if you don’t know how to make it work,” she said.

Carson hopes the wider community can overcome the divisions created by the dysfunctional council.

“I think everybody just has to be patient,” she said.

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