By Pauline Kerr
The ward system in Morris-Turnberry may, in the words of its deputy mayor, already be defunct, but the decision is one council felt required public input.
A public meeting held at the Bluevale hall on Nov. 1 gave Morris-Turnberry residents and ratepayers the opportunity to voice their views on reducing the number of councillors and eliminating the ward system.
While some did, both for and against, the meeting was by no means a repeat of the heated protest the last time council reviewed the ward system. This time around, fewer than 20 people attended the meeting and no individual or group made an official presentation.
Mayor Paul Gowing chaired the meeting, and allowed councillors and ratepayers ample opportunity to speak on either topic. He stated that although council is not required to hold a public meeting meeting to restructure council, “council felt it was the proper thing to do.”
The next step will be for the draft bylaws on reducing the number of councillors, and eliminating the ward system, to be brought before council, likely at the Nov. 20 meeting. Should council pass either or both bylaws, there will be a 45-day period during which people may file an appeal with the Ontario Municipal Board.
The proposed changes would be in effect for the 2014 election if the bylaws are passed.
The concensus seems to be reducing the number of councillors and electing them “at large” could result in a cost savings, but the bottom line has to be ensuring the people of the municipality are well represented.
Clerk Nancy Michie explained the municipality of Morris-Turnberry was set up by the restructuring order of 2000, with a mayor elected at large, and three councillors from each of the two wards. In 2008, a survey was sent out as part of a consultant’s study, and people indicated they did not want to change the ward system. However, the consultant recommended future councils revisit the matter, and that’s what is being done.
She further stated M-T has the highest council cost per elector in the county ($33.65 per elector), with more populous municipalities having half the cost per elector. Reducing the number of councillors would still leave M-T with the highest cost per elector, but it would be reduced.
Dorothy Kelly, former mayor, raised the question of changing the name of the municipality if wards are abolished.
While there was interest in discussing the matter further at council, the general opinion among the public seems to be that the time for a name change was 10 years ago. A number of people in favour of abolishing the ward system see no need to change the name. As one person said, “The trees have already been cut down to make the letterhead and envelopes.”
George Underwood asked council if cost was the only reason for the decision.
Gowing answered it was not. Under the ward system, people are only allowed to vote for half of council, which is poor representation. However, at a time when the various departments have been asked to trim back costs, “it’s only fair that council itself looks at how money is spent.”
Coun. John Smuck added that he owns property in both North Huron and Turnberry. He can vote in North Huron but not Turnberry. “It’s just not working,” he said. And at a time when the county is cutting back on the number of councillors, M-T should be doing the same.
“We need to look at what we need to do to be efficient,” said Gowing. He noted in the two years he’s been on county council, the number has been reduced from 20 to 15, and he found 20 “a bit unwieldy.”
Jackie Riggs asked about the difference in cost between six councillors and four, and if there’s not much of difference, “do we want that much power in the hands of four people rather than six?”
The reply was the $33.65 per elector would drop to $25.73 – still the highest but a substantial drop.
The question led to discussion among councillors on whether they have the time to take on more committee work if the number of councillors were reduced.
The response was mixed. Coun. Neil Warwick noted some of the committees that used to have a councillor, don’t even exist any more, like the Blyth Fire Board. He added in later discussion that many of the major issues council deals with are mandated by the province, while with seven people on council, “little decisions get beaten to death… we could do with five.”
Coun. Jamie Heffer said he couldn’t put in any more time than he already does, and feared “reducing the number of councillors would mean a loss of representation and balance.”
Gowing spoke of neighbouring councils that have reduced the number of councillors, or are considering doing so. “We’re one of the larger councils,” he said.
Underwood expressed the fear that all the representatives could be elected from one area, and made note of the size of M-T – 35 kilometres from Belmore to Walton.
Gowing replied by stressing the need for public involvement. “This situation (all councillors coming from one corner of the municipality) will only happen if people let it happen.”
Coun. David Baker agreed that there is more to M-T than the number of people – the size of the municipality has to be considered.
Deputy Mayor Jason Breckenridge had little to say during the meeting, except that he ran his election campaign on “cutting back on council, and dissolving the ward system. As far as he’s concerned, “the ward system is already defunct. If you think I make decisions for Turnberry alone, you’re wrong.”
“We’re a single municipality,” said Gowing. “Council needs to ensure we’re structured the way we need to be, to get the job done.”
He said he wished more people had come to the meeting, but feels confident “moving forward and doing the job the people elected council to do.”