Tie vote kills council’s next-to-last chance at reducing size
It was apparent early in the evening on Thursday that council was not going a change its size on this night. Despite years of meetings, research, hearings, a referendum, a Citizens’ Assembly and countless Shire Hall battles, at least nine of the 16 council members signalled they were sticking with the status quo. But it took nearly two and a half tortuous and bruising hours before council would at last stumble to that conclusion—and then only by an oddly fitting stalemate.
Thursday’s meeting was the culmination of a months-long process—the latest in a series of attempts to reach closure on this persistent issue. Shire Hall staff had narrowed the options to two: the two-ward, 10- councillor plan proposed by Mayor Robert Quaiff, and the three-ward, 12-councillor plan proposed by Gary Mooney. The status quo (10 wards, 15 councillors) and the 9- ward, 13-councillor plan proposed by John Thompson, were determined to have too little support.
A survey conducted over the past few months indicated that the least popular option was to do nothing. Fifty-seven percent of respondents ranked the status quo last among the four options—by far the largest single indicator of preference. That was followed by the nine-ward, 13-councillor plan.
Those opposed to reducing the size of council were quick to find fault with the survey findings, complaining the sample size—649 respondents— was too small. Others vaguely suggested the survey could have been manipulated. No proof or evidence of tampering was offered.
Some pointed to the small attendance at nine public meetings as evidence that County residents were content with the status quo. In fact just 178 residents, excluding both councillors and repeat participants, attended the meetings—just .007 per cent of the population.
“You don’t have a mandate to do anything,” Monica Alyea told council.
Staff had also prepared a list of six criteria that it said should be used to assess the suitability of the final two options. The criteria are as follows: odd number of council members; voter parity; equitable distribution of population; respect for identifiable communities of interest; utilize the natural physical boundaries; and serve the larger public interest.
Arguing for a smaller council size, Ian Inrig wanted to know why this list of criteria had just appeared now—at this late stage. He also wanted to know why a proposal made to council just a couple of weeks ago—that met each of these criteria— wasn’t being considered.
Brian Montgomery of Ameliasburgh gave a colourful explanation about why the twoward, 10-councillor plan proposed by Mayor Quaiff would diminish representation of rural residents.
“No offence,” said Montgomery.
“None taken,” said Mayor Quaiff.
There was scarcely anything new said— how could there be after nine years?
It was then council’s turn to explain how they were voting and why.
For some, there is no perceivable benefit to a smaller council. Others, like Mr. Montgomery, worry about concentrated power in the urban areas to the detriment of the rural residents.
Others argued that fundamental principles of democracy such as equitable representation weren’t trivial considerations—and that if challenged to a higher authority, the County was at risk of the of a solution being imposed upon it.
Some said it was a mistake to ignore the will of the people as expressed in the 2010 ballot question, the Citizens’ Assembly, comments made in the last election and the results from the current survey.
“When are we going to listen to the people?” asked Councillor Jim Dunlop.
Three councillors, who had been in favour of reducing council size during the election campaign, have since changed their mind.
Among these, Councillor Gord Fox repeated his oft-asserted belief that representation by population is “a silly numbers game.” He then suggested that talk about a challenge to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) was a hollow bluff.
“They’ve had 10 years to take it to the OMB, why haven’t they?” asked Fox, either forgetting or oblivious to the fact this issue was taken to the OMB in 2009. The adjudicator in that hearing found in favour of the County, in the view of many, because the municipality had promised to put the issue to the people by way of a question on the ballot in the election of 2010.
Undaunted, Fox pointed to the recent federal election where more seats had been added to the House of Commons.
“The Feds have more seats,” said Fox.
Another councillor pointed out for Fox that the increase in federal seats was done to accommodate the growth in the nation’s population, that the County had no such issue.
Fox, like many of his colleagues, used his five minutes to highlight the sense fraternity and camaraderie shared around the council table during this term. He praised its accomplishments, without listing any.
“We get things done,” said Fox.
Other councillors were equally pleased with their achievements.
Councillor Jamie Forrester, serving as chair of the meeting, was eager to usher a quick end to the meeting. He had counted the votes and knew, like most gathered in the council chambers knew, the status quo would prevail.
“We’ve done a good job,” said Forrester congratulating himself and colleagues. “The process was excellent. We’ve done our job.”
Ameliasburgh councillor Dianne O’Brien agreed.
“The status quo works wildly,” said O’Brien.
North Marysburgh’s Steve Ferguson was one of the three whose opinion on the size of council has changed since he was elected. He says he came into the job with his eyes and ears open.
“My big question is, why?” said Ferguson. “My concern is that rural areas will lose representation. I see no reason to downsize.”
Mayor Robert Quaiff seemed the most relieved to see the issue near a resolution, even if it was one he didn’t favour. He applauded the tireless work by Shire Hall staff in managing the public meetings and gathering their feedback. Quaiff said he was at peace with the process, regardless of the outcome.
“I feel good that I have delivered on my promise,” said Quaiff. “This has not been a do-nothing year.”
But when the speeches were done, council had to make a decision. Despite a clear indication of how the vote would go—council balked.
Sophiasburgh councillor Kevin Gale challenged one of the majority of councillors in favour of the status quo to make a motion to end the debate. But the challenge went unanswered.
Instead, council embarked on an confusing exercise to whittle down the four options—going around the table three times. With each round, councillors named their preferred option, with the least preferred dropping off the list for the next round. It was a perplexing exercise, both in terms of process and conclusion. But they finally emerged with two options—the status quo and the the three-ward, 12-councillor plan.
Councillor Brad Nieman was one of the councillors who had changed his mind about council size after he was elected. He spoke in favour of the status quo. But in the second survey of council, he opted for the nineward, 13-councillor plan.
When that plan dropped off the list, many in the room believed he would revert to the status quo. Nieman paused a long time before announcing his preference was for the three-ward, 12 councillor plan.
The result was a tie vote. Eight for—eight against. Stalemate.
Some councillors hung their heads. Other decried the outcome as ridiculous and embarrassing.
Councillor Fox refused to see anything but the positive.
“This is why a tie vote is a good thing,” said Fox smiling at his colleagues around the table.
Councillor Gale made a last ditch attempt to find out if the status quo—the County’s existing arrangement— actually met the criteria set out in the report. There was little interest in pursuing that line, and his motion failed.
The matter now comes before council on November 10. It seems unlikely, but it is possible a councillor or two may have a change of heart between now and then. Then perhaps this chapter in the size of council story will come to a merficul end.