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Unequal representation for six more years

Nov 04, 2008

Plans to add an extra council seat or modify existing ward boundaries have been put off until the next term of council after city staff advised that there is not enough time to change things before the 2010 election. That leaves some residents of the former city of Hamilton with less that one third of the voting power of some suburban residents until at least the 2014 election.

It appears an October 16 decision of the governance committee to look at adding one extra council seat on the mountain was changed after the meeting. The official report offers no hint of that agreement reached by the committee.

Voters per ward range from 38,478 in the central mountain ward seven to 11,682 in the rural Flamborough ward. Pressure for more equal populations came to a head a year ago when council split along urban-suburban lines on eliminating the tax differences between the former municipalities for transit and other area rated services.

At the urging of Sam Merulla, council subsequently approved a study of ward boundaries that would recognize population numbers, areas of growth and decline, and natural boundaries while “preserving communities of interest”.

The resolution also asked for a staff report on the associated costs of the study. That appeared in February with a price tag of up to $150,000. An attempt by Brad Clark and Bob Bratina to approve the study was defeated, and instead the whole issue was deferred to January 2009.

Instead, the matter was discussed by the governance committee, a six-member group that includes five suburban councillors plus Terry Whitehead, who supported creation of an extra ward taking in part of his west mountain ward and ward seven, plus a small portion of ward eleven.

My sense is … that the ‘rep by pop’ was another way of getting some place,” he said. “[I]f an extra ward was created on the mountain, based on population, I think that would achieve the end result.”

This approach was approved by the committee and chair Russ Powers said he and staff would “finesse a motion and we’ll float it by all the members of the committee and staff just to be comfortable with that before we introduce it to council.”

That motion ended up as “that no further action be taken with respect to rep by pop and ward boundary changes until the council of 2010-2014.”

Merulla asked for an explanation when the motion came to council last week. City clerk Kevin Christenson explained that adding an extra ward had been considered but staff believe that would not be approved by the Ontario Municipal Board.

“Any review that we’ve seen coming out of municipalities that have gone to the OMB have indicated that they don’t like to see this sort of thing piecemealed,” said Christenson.  “If you’re going to do a review, it should be done city-wide.”

And that, Christenson argued, could not be completed by the deadline of December 31, 2009 that would allow implementation for the 2010 election. 

“So our best advice to you is that you’re not going to get it done in a year,” he concluded.

Governance committee members got a different story from one of Christenson’s staff.  When asked specifically by Powers if meeting the deadline was “even possible to do”, Tony Fallis expressed optimism.

“It is possible I think,” he responded. “You do have enough time to answer your question, Mr Chair. It will have to be strictly adhered to.”

The call for representation by population is also generating debate in the GTA. It was editorially supported last week by the Toronto Star which called for provincial intervention “since officials elected under the current system have an obvious interest in maintaining the status quo”.

A Star investigation found inequities in eight localities including Ajax, Vaughn, Whitby and Brampton. The latter’s residents pay 43 percent of Peel region’s budget but only have seven of the 22 seats on the regional council.

It is surprising that, while Queen's Park requires municipalities to review their official plans every five years, it has no formal requirement that they review and update democratic representation,” editorialized the Star. “Representation should be reviewed [by the provincial government] and updated automatically, perhaps every 10 or 12 years.”

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