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.


Civic Centre Renovations

Yesterday, City Council debated the replacement of the windows and cladding of the Civic Centre. I’m not surprised that this project has attracted quite a bit of public interest and that there are some misconceptions about why it is happening, which I would like to try to clear up.

To begin with, I want to make it clear that the renovations are not happening for aesthetic reasons. It’s being made because the current state of the windows and cladding present a health and safety issue. An asset review study that was done in 2014 recommended making the replacements as soon as possible, but no later than by 2018. It is a project that has to happen and we would be negligent to try and postpone it any longer.

The Civic Centre will be 42 years old this year and it is starting to feel the weight of those years. Extensive work was done on the roof last year. I think just about all of us understand that roofs wear out over time and eventually they have to be replaced. In this case, the replacement of the windows and cladding is similarly necessary.

It is also important to understand how we will pay for the project. We are going to use long-term debt to pay for the majority of the costs to replace the windows and cladding. To me, this is a prudent decision because the City carries exceptionally low debt and we are still in a very favourable environment for interest rates. Furthermore, an annual stream of funding has already been identified within the 2017 budget to finance the loan. This project is not increasing the budget or increasing your taxes.

The City is required by the province to have an asset management plan. The plan guides how the City makes needed repairs and upgrades to its buildings and facilities over a 25-year horizon. There is an annual allocation within the budget (approximately $2.3 million) that funds the asset management plan. This is money that is used to make repairs, improvements, and replace equipment. A portion of this annual amount will be used to finance the loan.

The point I want to stress is this: if we did not have to replace the windows and cladding at the Civic Centre, the money in the budget that is going to finance the loan would be used for other projects and other repairs to City facilities, because that is its dedicated purpose. We would not have any additional money to lower property taxes or to provide extra services.

I know we are still in the midst of a difficult economic climate, so I understand some of the outcry about what the City’s “priorities” should be. However, to that I will say this: taking care of the things we own as a City has to be a priority too. Because I think experience has taught us by now that we don’t gain much by stalling decisions for another day. The options generally boil down to paying today or paying more in the future—and often suffering problems in between when we decide to kick things down the road.

Throughout this Council term, we’ve been looking for opportunities to divest the City of old buildings and property to thereby lower our asset management costs. Our recent decision with respect to the Steelton Seniors Centre is a good example.  By relocating the Steelton Seniors Centre (from an old, inaccessible building) to the fully-accessible Northern Community Centre, we have helped the City forego more than a million dollars in future renovation costs.

However, I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that our municipal government could function without a City Hall, so it is important that we commit enough funds to make sure the one we have stays in reasonably good working order. The building is, after all, a reflection of our community and as such we can’t let it fall into disrepair.

Lastly, I appreciate that some people are disappointed by the proposed change in the building’s look.  We have to keep in mind that over 40 years have elapsed since the cladding and windows were first installed.  Materials and technology changes and in this respect, Council has to defer to the architectural and engineering experts.  In the end, I am confident that we will have a visually appealing and modern looking building that will continue to be one of our city’s distinctive landmarks.