A clean sweep

A move by a small-town council to block a popular mayor from being re-elected backfires spectacularly

Along the north shore of Conception Bay, Nfld., municipal elections are often routine affairs. Voters turn out in ho-hum numbers, incumbents tend to keep their jobs, while sometimes whole councils are acclaimed when no new candidates step forward. Which makes what happened on voting day in the town of Clarke’s Beach, population 1,400, nothing short of historic.

For the past four years, the tranquil seaside village has been the home of one of Canada’s most rancorous town councils. A raging feud between long-time councillors and the town’s popular mayor, Betty Moore, threatened to keep town business at a standstill. The acrimony came to a head last fall when councillors voted to strip citizens of the right to vote directly for mayor, returning to an earlier method where citizens voted for councillors, who would later choose the mayor from within their own ranks. At the time the mayor and council were locked in an increasingly bitter battle with wild accusations from both sides—that the mayor was acting like a dictator, or that councillors were staging a coup. The conflict came to a head when the council voted in favour of a $40,000 land purchase while Moore, who said she wasn’t told of the vote, was away at a scheduled event.

But if, as critics claimed, councillors thought citizens might shrug off the matter, that strategy backfired. On Sept. 24, a record number of people—75 per cent of eligible voters—came out to cast ballots in support of a staggering 25 candidates—more than in any municipality in Newfoundland outside of St. John’s. And after the votes were tallied, the only survivor was Moore. “I’m just thrilled,” she says. “I have all these new people around me and we’re looking forward to working together.”

In the months before the campaign, Moore says she was unsure how it would unfold. While many people approached her to say they were unhappy with town council, she worried there wouldn’t be enough new candidates on the ballot to bring change to the town. “I kept telling everyone, people need more choices,” she says. So she was “totally surprised” when 25 candidates stepped forward for the town’s seven council seats. In another first for Clarke’s Beach, the majority of elected councillors were women.

At 27, Crystal Brett is the youngest of the new councillors, who will be sworn in Oct. 3. A native of Clarke’s Beach, Brett says she was very familiar with the previous councillors, many of whom had been in office since she was a child. She decided to run because she felt the council had become defined by “bullying and tension.” “Clarke’s Beach is my home, and I’ve always believed that you should stand proud for your town,” she says.

Due to the rejigged ballot system brought in by the previous council, the decision of who will become mayor has yet to be made. Moore says council will almost certainly revert back to the old rules so that voters can decide for themselves who will be mayor in the next election. In the meantime, she says she intends to nominate the councillor who received the most votes (Moore received the second-highest share of votes after her nephew, Wayne Snow) and says she will not regret losing the position. “Right now, I’m totally committed to working with council to improve Clarke’s Beach,” she says. After the year she’s had, she says, that’s ambitious enough.

Maclean's October 14, 2013