The mess in Richmond County — Part 1

This promises to be an eventful week in the history of Richmond County, NS, where the municipal government has been in turmoil ever since a palace coup ousted former Warden Steve Sampson in October 2014.

Ah, but the loser now will be later to win, as Bob Dylan warned.

Steve Sampson copy

Former Warden Steve Sampson

What began as a fight about the optimal size of county council has led to 15 months of costly legal warfare that will reach its climax in the Court of Appeal Thursday, with probable vindication for the ousted warden.

That might be enough tumult for most tiny rural municipalities, but not for Richmond apparently. Perhaps sensing their impending defeat in court, two or three of the councillors arrayed against Sampson launched reckless appeals to the peanut gallery. They seized on the county’s annual independent audit, which called for stricter adherence to travel expense rules, and misrepresented those findings as evidence of massive financial malfeasance.

This produced a predictable field day on social media, where anonymous trolls using newly created fake profiles set up a “Taxpayers of Richmond County” discussion group, featuring shrill attacks on the integrity of CAO Warren Olsen, former Warden Sampson, and any councillors who side with them. Posters who try to defend Sampson or Olsen finds themselves banned from the group and have their comments expunged.

The impugned councillors responded to the accusations of financial wrongdoing with a proposal to put all the county’s expense claims, visa statements, and audit reports for the last five years online. Their plan will come to a vote at Monday night’s council meeting. [UPDATE: The meeting has been postponed until next Monday.]

Warden Victor David

Warden Victor David

Along the way, Victor David, the councillor who replaced Sampson as warden, has taken 30 days leave for unspecified medical reasons, a second councillor has been diagnosed with cancer, and a group of good men and women who stood for office to serve their community have found themselves vilified as liars and crooks.

It’s a sad commentary on the way populist hatred for politicians has rendered the public square toxic in our society.

I realize my account may not square with the impression you gained from scanty news accounts of the recent Richmond Council fracas. That’s a story in itself.

The ability of provincial news organizations to cover events more than an hour’s drive from Halifax or Sydney has all but disappeared over the last 20 years. Bureaus have closed. Travel budgets have evaporated. Rural issues are covered by phone, if at all.

Provincial news outlets all but ignored the fight over Richmond Council’s size, even though it raised fundamental issues about the nature of rural self-government in the 21st Century. But once partisan shills began fulminating about improper expense claims, reporters perked up their ears long enough to take dictation from the noisy side of the controversy, devoid of context or any hint that the expense issue might be a proxy for the flagging battle to preserve 10 council seats.

I’ll try to sort out the details in two or three posts this week. But first, this disclosure: In years past, I have carried out small communications contracts for Richmond County, both during Warden Sampson’s term, and also during a brief period in 2012 when Councillor David served as acting warden following the death of Warden John Boudreau.

More to come…