Comment, Size of Council

Plan 13

Posted: January 22, 2016 at 9:16 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Council was defiant. An 8-8 tie meant the defeat of proposals to reduce the size of council. It was over. Mayor Robert Quaiff warned they were celebrating too soon. He pleaded with councillors to complete the process they had initiated. He feared an Ontario Municipal Board appeal. Particularly since they had short-circuited their own process. He worried they would lose and that an electoral boundary solution would be imposed upon them. That, he cautioned would be the worst possible outcome.

For half of council, the tie vote represented a victory for the status quo, for others it was a bald denial of the electorate’s wishes. For most, however, it was welcome end to a long and bitter fight. Many went home that night hoping, praying they could finally move on.

The size of council issue, however, has defied resolution through three terms. It will not die easy.

In the sobering days afterward, a majority of councillors came to realize they had acted rashly. There was still no desire to complete the process they had begun, but the risk of a successful OMB appeal, was too great to ignore.

So at the next council meeting on November 10, they sought to inoculate themselves against such an outcome.

John Thompson’s Plan 13 was developed specifically to do this. As a former councillor, Thompson understood that the OMB would take a dim view of the imbalance of representation between wards; that some voters had one representative while others had three; among other deficiencies of the existing structure. Even if it was inclined to stay out County business, the OMB could not overlook the electoral inequities in this jurisdiction.

But Thompson also knew the OMB would be reticent to overturn a decision made by a duly elected council after consulting with the community. So his Plan 13 was devised to erase only the most egregious inequities while retaining a large council of 13 councillors plus a mayor. Bloomfield’s 500 or so electors would be swallowed by Hallowell and Sophiasburgh would be reduced to a single representative— on par with Hillier’s single council member with just a couple hundred fewer voters.

It was small change— but perhaps enough to keep the OMB out of the County’s affairs.

So on that November night, by a 9-7 vote, council chose the protection offered by Thompson’s plan. It was the next best thing to doing nothing.

That brings us to next Tuesday’s Council meeting. There. Council will gather to formalize this arrangement—deleting the ward of Bloomfield, changing Hallowell’s boundary, and eliminating one of two councillors in Sophiasburgh.

Many will be anxious to put this episode behind them. Perhaps too anxious.

For Plan 13 isn’t bulletproof. There are no guarantees it will work. The obvious cynicism of council’s decision making will count against it in an OMB hearing. It will be hard to defend such transparent calculation. So too will the fact that according to a survey council commissioned, Plan 13 was the second-least acceptable solution according to respondents, edging out only the status quo for least favourable. Council will surely be asked whose interest it represents.

That will lead to questions about the Citizens’ Assembly recommendation that council be reconfigured to 10 councillors plus a mayor. From there, it is a short jump to the 2010 ballot question in which 81 per cent of respondents voted for a review of council. And this will bring us to council’s greatest vulnerability.

Last fall, County staff, along with its legal advisors, prepared a list of criteria with which to measure and evaluate the various electoral options. Council adopted these criteria without giving it much consideration. Then it ignored them—as they rushed to escape the quagmire.

Briefly, these criteria are that the proposed electoral solution achieves: an odd number of Council members; voter parity; equitable distribution of population; respects identifiable communities of interest; utilizes natural physical boundaries; and serves the larger public interest.

Plan 13 fails at least half these tests. Some will argue it fails every one.

Going into an OMB appeal, council’s actions on this file will appear arbitrary, unhinged from its principles and deaf to the electorate.

It is exactly what happened in London in 2005. There, the OMB compelled the municipality to redraw its boundaries. When it refused, a judge drew them.

This is precisely what Mayor Quaiff is hoping to avoid.

rick@wellingtontimes.ca