Toronto’s city council is polarized. Montreal’s is engulfed in corruption allegations. But neither metropolis can call itself the most dysfunctional municipal government in Canada. Not compared to the tiny town of Clarke’s Beach, Nfld., population 1,300.
Located on Conception Bay, about an hour west of St. John’s, the seaside village is described by residents and tourists alike as tranquil and scenic. The town’s official website promotes Clarke’s Beach as a favourite destination for artists and retirees. This serene picture, however, belies a rancorous feud within the municipal government that has put the community’s popular mayor, Betty Moore, on a collision course with the majority of the town’s councillors. With wild accusations flying from both sides—that the mayor is a dictator, or that councillors are staging a coup—the council recently took the extraordinary step of stripping Clarke’s Beach residents of the power to directly pick their own mayor in future elections.
Since being elected as the town’s first female mayor in 2005, and then re-elected in 2009, Moore’s relations with most of her six long-time councillors have grown increasingly strained. She says she ran for office because she felt the direction of the town had stagnated. “We didn’t seem to have much activity, we didn’t seem to have much progress,” she says. On the other hand, Deputy Mayor Kevin Hussey accuses the mayor of running roughshod over council’s wishes. “Betty Moore is operating a dictatorship,” he says. “She doesn’t take direction.” Things came to a head in August when Hussey called an emergency meeting to approve a large land purchase on a civic holiday. The councillors voted to buy a stretch of waterfront property for $40,000. Mayor Moore, who was at a scheduled community event at the time, says she was not told of the meeting and that the deal was hastily done. Hussey, meanwhile, says the mayor was told of the meeting and chose not to come. Whatever the case, at a public meeting several days later Hussey brought forward a motion to scrap the town’s two-ballot system, under which residents are given the chance to vote directly for the position of mayor. Instead, they voted to go back to a system used prior to 2005, which gives councillors the power to choose the mayor from their own ranks. According to Robert Keenan, an official with Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador, an umbrella organization representing cities and towns, communities that use this type of electoral system have traditionally given the role of mayor to the councillor who garners the most votes. But, perhaps ominously for Moore, Clarke’s Beach councillor Roland Andrews says that rule is “not cast in stone.”
A municipal election is scheduled for next year. The ongoing rift between the mayor and her councillors has sparked an outcry from Clarke’s Beach citizens, most of whom describe their council as “totally dysfunctional.” Whereas most small towns on Conception Bay generally attract just a couple of citizens to town council meetings, residents of Clarke’s Beach have been showing up to meetings by the dozens and have peppered the local newspaper with angry letters. “I am of the opinion that the town council of Clarke’s Beach couldn’t organize a Sunday school picnic,” says long-time resident and RV-park owner Ernie Mugford. The mayor, he says, “is just being buffaloed.” Adds Wallace Reid, a retired businessman, “three or four people have got together and they want to run the whole show.” For his part, Hussey says comments posted on the newspaper’s website criticizing the council’s move were written by the mayor’s “plants.”
Moore remains guarded in her choice of words regarding her battle with her fellow councillors. “I’ve felt for a long time that [council] doesn’t want me to be the leader and be mayor, but I’m just getting that from council, not the community,” she says. Even so, she’s in the process of rounding up supporters to run as new candidates next year. And that, she believes, could finally give her the edge over her political foes.