OMB hearing limited to ward boundary changes
After two and a half days of hearings at Shire Hall, the future of the County’s ward boundaries—and potentially, by extension, the size of the County’s council—is in the hands of Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) chair and former Belleville mayor Mary Anne Sills.
Debate, discussion and deliberations over the size of council and ward boundaries goes back two decades to the amalgamation of Prince Edward County as one municipality. But this current iteration comes after council signed off on a bylaw in January of 2016. It came after a variety of proposals were brought to council and whittled down to three options. The option selected, proposed by former councillor John Thompson, would remove the village of Bloomfield as its own ward, absorbing it with Hallowell, and removing both the Bloomfield councillor and one Sophiasburgh councillor to reduce council to 14 members—including a mayor—representing nine wards.
Athol resident Pierre Klein submitted his own proposal, but it came past the deadline. Still, after the bylaw was in place, Klein had to take action on what he saw as a cop-out by council, an attempt to settle a 20-year dispute without addressing the concerns of the community.
So Klein brought his concerns back to council in the form of an OMB appeal, the second time the issue has been before the intervening body.
Klein’s appeal was on the basis that the bylaw was “in contravention of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as expected in a free and democratic society,” and that “the process and the basis by which the Council of Prince Edward County made this decision was defective.”
The hearing took place at Shire Hall between Wednesday and Friday last week. Klein, who represented himself without legal counsel, had hoped to discuss the size of council, but was limited by Sills, who made it clear that debate was off the table and beyond the OMB’s purview. Instead, Klein was restricted to arguments about the validity of the County’s ward boundaries, and specifically the choice to eliminate the ward of Bloomfield.
It tied his hands significantly.
The County was represented by Wayne Fairbrother, assisted by Samantha Foster.
Both sides brought experts on municipal political boundaries to discuss the County’s ward boundaries. Klein brought in Dr. Robert Williams, a retired professor emeritus of political science from the University of Waterloo. Fairbrother brought in John Maddox, a retired policy advisor and private consultant who has been providing highly in-demand (if costly) investigative and consulting services to municipalities around the province for over a decade.
The difference in opinion between the Fairbrother’s and Klein’s witnesses centred around how valid true voter parity is. Williams argued wards should be divided to create true parity—every resident’s vote counts equally for an equal number of councillors— while Maddox said there is room for a discrepancy in voting when a smaller population requires representation but lacks population density, as is the case with rural voters.
Both referenced a Supreme Court ruling about provincial electoral boundaries in Saskatchewan concerning voter parity between rural areas and urban centres.
Both the appellant and the County also brought forward residents and County staff as witnesses. Klein brought Dennis Fox, who is in support of his motion, while Fairbrother called Kathleen Vowinkel and David Mowbray in support of the County’s decision.
Klein closed his case on Friday by arguing the current system lacks voter parity, with some residents voting for two or three councillors and with councillors from different wards representing population sizes that vary by more than 30 per cent.
He also argued the current ward boundaries were not representative of the communities along their borders.
“The village of Consecon is divided in half between two wards, Ameliasburgh and Hiller, effectively splitting the community in half and marrying them off with other communities,” he told the board, referring to the ward boundary that allows half of Consecon three votes for each of Ameliasburgh’s three councillors, while the other half only votes for Hillier’s one.
The discussion led to some head-butting between Klein and OMB chair Sills.
“I had an opportunity last night to review a number of the documents. And going back in time, the issue was the size of council,” Sills said to Klein as he went through his final comments. It was a clear source of frustration, as this was an issue she had made clear he could not appeal.
“To try to bring about better parity and fairness in terms of elected officials is not, in my mind, how many people you get to vote for. I don’t think that’s what the legislation intended,” Sills said. “It means how many people sit around this room, and how much vote is there for a percentage of the population. So it’s not about who gets to vote on the ballot for three councillors and who gets to vote for one or two. The representation by population related to who becomes an official for a certain number.”
Sills pointed to her former municipality of Belleville, where those living in the city vote for six councillors, while those in Thurlow ward vote for two, representing the variance in population between the two wards.
As OMB chair, Sills will deliberate upon the three-day-long hearing and deliver a decision in the near future. While she didn’t provide a deadline for her ruling, she did say that whatever that decision is, the matter needs to be settled by the end of this calendar year, since that decision could affect the municipal elections, set for 2018.