Changing City Council

Two Council meetings ago, City Council voted to give notice that it intends to change its composition from 12 councillors to 10 and to redraw the City’s ward boundaries from six wards to five.

I voted for the change because I think it is a sensible, evidence-based decision that will lead to a Council that is more appropriately-sized for our community. However, there have been questions raised in regards to the decision that I will try to address here.

Why not go lower than 10?

The research examined by the Council Review Committee shows that there would be a case to be made for having eight councillors. I don’t think there is a good case for trying to go with fewer than eight. With six councillors we would have to entertain making the positions full-time or adding staff at City Hall to help them manage their workload.

In some public commentaries, I’ve seen examples cited of larger cities have relatively few councillors. Kitchener tends to be a popular example, as they had only six councillors for a long time (they’ve since expanded to 10). It bears remembering though that Kitchener—along with many southern Ontario cities—is part of a two-tier municipal structure, whereas Sault Ste. Marie is a single-tier city.

Although Kitchener is several times larger than Sault Ste. Marie in terms of population, the tax levy managed by their City Council is actually quite comparable to the size managed by our Council.

Regardless, it was clear from our deliberations that there was interest on Council in changing from 12 to 10 but not any lower than that. Doing so is a step in the right direction that I am happy to support.

Why not have one councillor per ward?

Although we are changing the size of Council and the number of wards, we are still going to have two councillors elected from each ward. It is felt that this is important because it ensures that when a vacancy or extended absence of a councillor occurs ward constituents will still have a representative whom they can contact.

Obviously, when the provincial by-election is called we are going to have a situation where both councillors in Ward 6 are temporarily absent. However, these situations are rare.

Is a referendum needed?

In the opposite direction to the questions addressed above, there has been some suggestion that the status quo should be maintained or that the question should be put to voters in a referendum.

To that, I would say this: in Ontario, the Municipal Act vests the power to change a council’s composition (subject to certain limits) with the municipal council itself. The process to do so is set out very clearly in act. There is no requirement for a referendum or ballot question. When wards are created, redrawn or dissolved, there are requirements for notice to be given to electors and for a public meeting to be held. Any resident who objects to the proposed changes has the right to appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board.

Our local system of government operates under the tenets of representative democracy. Every decision that our Council makes can be considered an expression of the popular will of the community. Arguing that no one expressly campaigned on reducing the size of Council is a red herring; Council is called upon to decide matters all the time that were not broached during the election campaign. Because we are elected, we remain accountable to the public for all of our decisions.

To me though, the larger point is that we have to be open to change both in the community and at the City of Sault Ste. Marie and that openness needs to extend to Council itself. For the last several years, we’ve been asking staff to trim their spending. We’ve been exploring ways of delivering services differently. We’ve watched as the City’s senior management team has restructured itself to have fewer managers. We have to be willing to turn that same level of scrutiny on to our own operations as a council and I, for one, am glad that we did.