Byelection likely to fill vacant Norfolk council seat

·3 min read

Norfolk County council is poised to call a pandemic byelection.

Ward 2 in the county’s west end has been unrepresented since veteran councillor Roger Geysens resigned in late December after nearly 30 years in municipal politics.

That left councillors with the option to call a byelection or appoint someone to fill the Langton-area seat.

The position legally has to be filled since the county is more than 90 days out from the next general election.

In practical terms, being down a councillor has already led to numerous motions — including key budget votes — failing on a 4-4 tie.

At Tuesday’s council-in-committee meeting, county clerk Andy Grozelle said appointing a new councillor for the last year of Geysens’ term is the cheaper and faster way to go, but it does come with some risk.

“Incumbency is considered to be a significant advantage,” Grozelle said, explaining that giving someone the job would essentially give them a year’s head start on campaigning.

Any unpopular decisions the appointee made would invite criticism of council for their choice, he added.

An appointed councillor could be in place by March 10, while the earliest an election could be held would be May 31, which would leave the seat empty until June 8.

An election would cost taxpayers up to $33,000, including postage for voting by mail. Grozelle said candidates would still have to physically gather the required 25 signatures supporting their candidacy, and door-to-door campaigning increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Mayor Kristal Chopp said it is worth the wait — and the extra expense — to give residents a direct say.

“I think it’s important for Ward 2 that they have a representative they themselves elected,” she said.

But some councillors pushed for speed, saying if done in an open and transparent manner, the appointment process could produce a candidate Ward 2 residents would embrace.

Coun. Mike Columbus said west-end residents tell him they want a new councillor “yesterday,” saying they were upset to not have a voice at council during budget talks.

“If you go the route of an appointment which considers input from Ward 2 residents and shows that it is in the interest of getting representation for our ward in a more timely manner, you might find Ward 2 residents more likely to be on board,” resident Catherine Schonberger told councillors in a letter.

“Without consultation as to who is appointed, residents would obviously prefer a byelection.”

Appointing someone without resident feedback would “serve to increase the feelings of disconnect and discontent between the residents here in Ward 2 and the council as a whole,” Schonberger added.

In the 2018 election, Ward 2 had the lowest voter turnout of Norfolk’s seven wards at 26.9 per cent.

Out of 5,932 eligible voters, just 1,598 cast a ballot. Geysens won with 720 votes against two challengers.

Coun. Chris Van Paassen said using mail-in voting this time could increase voter turnout, since voters in the largely agricultural riding could cast their ballots without having to leave their farms.

Councillors voted 5-3 to call a byelection, a decision they must ratify at next week’s full council meeting.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator