Province lifts Lakeland Ridges council suspension as mayor’s race looms

by | May 3, 2024

Three candidates vying for mayor’s office, one of two vacant council positions filled by acclamation in the May 6 election

The successful mayoralty candidate and the acclaimed Ward 4 councillor will join a fully functioning Lakeland Ridges council when they take office following the May 6 by-election.

Late Thursday, May 2, the Department of Environment and Local Government announced it would lift the suspension of the Lakeland Ridge council, effective May 15. The department suspended the mayor and council on July 28, 2023, and put the community under the control of an appointed supervisor.

“Our government wants to allow the council of the Municipality of Lakeland Ridges and its residents the chance to grow and flourish as a community,” said Local Government Minister Glen Savoie. “We thank the three supervisors for their leadership and hard work in overseeing the day-to-day operations of the municipality during the supervision period. We encourage the council to fully address past issues and engage in the transition services being offered. This new path forward is a step in the right direction.”

Three candidates, Eric Cummings, Leonard Foster, and Lance Graham, chose to seek the mayor’s office despite the long-running turmoil on the council. The department’s decision to lift the suspension surprised them and existing council members.

At a public forum Wednesday, May 1, at the Debec WI Hall, the candidates and existing council members in attendance said they had no indication when the government would lift the suspension. They all agreed the time had come for elected members to return to representing the community’s needs.

The three candidates agreed on the key to a well-functioning council.

“Communication,” said Cummings, who can bring years of community service to the mayor’s office. He said the mayor and council members must work in the same direction, keep an open line of communication with voters and “keep things to the point.”

Foster agreed, explaining that more than a decade of leading the board of a non-profit project had taught him the importance of working together towards a shared goal.

“I had to convince a group of people they have more in common than they think,” he said.

Graham, a former Meductic mayor, said “good communication” and “good feedback” are the keys to integrating the divergent interests of the towns of Canterbury and Meductic and the local service districts of Canterbury, North Lake, Debec, and Benton.

“Let’s be proud of Lakeland Ridges,” he said.

The Debec open house was the second of four similar events throughout the sprawling rural community in the final days of the election campaign. The candidates previously met at the North Lake Rec Centre and planned further events on Friday, May 3, at 7 p.m. at the Canterbury Community Centre and 1 p.m. Saturday, May 4, at the Meductic Community Centre.

During the Debec meeting, hosted by Ward 2 Councillors Linda Porter and Patrica Budd, who represent Debec, the three candidates delivered positive and respectful positions.

“If I wasn’t running, I would happily vote for either of these two,” said Foster about his opponents.

Much of the discussion at the Debec meeting surrounded the ongoing suspension, lack of communication and grievances about how the province handled the dysfunctional situation.

Porter noted that as of that night, the council spent 281 days under suspension while a succession of three different provincially appointed supervisors worked with staff to oversee municipal operations.

Budd expressed the council member’s frustration with the province’s lack of clarity and information.

Michael Blaney served as the first supervisor, followed by Greg Lutes. Former Meductic Mayor Stephen Manuel replaced Lutes, a move that Budd said surprised council members and the community.

Budd explained that under Lutes, the situation improved significantly through regular meetings, training and communications, leading to what they expected to be a lifting of the suspension.

She said communication dried up under Manuel, who appeared singularly focused on the operation of the town.

Budd said even her requests through the Freedom of Information Act failed to secure answers from the department, including why the province replaced Lutes.

Existing councillors and the mayoralty candidates agreed that the lack of information created a void that residents and others filled with gossip and innuendo.

While the province didn’t release the full results of the detailed investigation of the council dysfunction, it did report ongoing “bullying” and opposing factions within the council. During the suspension, Tanya Cloutier, former Canterbury mayor and first elected Lakeland Ridges mayor, resigned her position, citing ongoing bullying within the council.

Ward 4 Councillors Mike Furrow and Mark Grant, who represented the former village of Canterbury, also resigned. Dustin Craig Buckingham will fill one of those vacant positions by acclamation.

Near the end of the Debec open house, resident John Carson said that regardless of the point of view or who they blame, Lakeland Ridges voters “seem to be fed up.”

“We’re hoping one of you gentlemen can bring it together,” he said, referring to the mayoralty candidates.

Foster said the new mayor must face significant issues in the newly amalgamated community beyond their efforts to oversee a functional and effective council. He said that includes bringing all the small fire departments “up to snuff.”

Meductic, Debec, North Lake, and Canterbury have their own fire departments.

Foster also cited rising police costs, noting the RCMP just announced an eight per cent raise for its members.

He also said Lakeland Ridges council must ensure adequate financing for each community’s recreation centres and halls.

Cummings and Graham agreed the council faces challenges beyond dysfunction. Cummings noted that the Lakeland Ridges website needs improvement to ensure adequate information flow to residents.

Graham said the mayor’s role requires carrying out the interests of the council and ensuring they work together to enact council-approved mandates, bylaws, and decisions, regardless of personal views. He added that the mayor must maintain a close relationship with staff.

While the province provided few details about lifting the council’s suspension, it committed to working with the rural community.

“The Department of Environment and Local Government will offer financial support for transition training for the council, with the aim of facilitating a seamless transition and supporting advancement of the community,” the department said in its statement.

FOREST FIRE INDEX – click image for current status

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