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Council future in the balance

Feb 06, 2017

City council’s rejection of ward boundary changes required to give equal voting rights to all Hamiltonians is being criticized as self-serving, but it could also easily backfire and threaten the re-election of many incumbents in next year’s municipal election. That possibility of even more substantial changes that can now be imposed by the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) was out-weighed in most councillors’ minds by the certain upheaval that would come from either of the two options recommended by a quarter-million dollar independent review.

Both the revised 15-seat re-drawing and the alternative 16-seat configuration of ward boundaries recommended last week by a group of consultants would likely mean much more competitive races in the 2018 elections. And they would end the over-representation of the former suburbs that has been in place since amalgamation while also reducing the slush funds controlled by the eight councillors from the old city.

The slightly modified status quo chosen by an 11-3 council vote means the rural ward fourteen residents represented by Robert Pasuta would continue to have three times the voting power of those living in Donna Skelly’s central mountain ward. Indeed, all three mountain wards have about twice the population as outlying areas in Doug Conley’s ward 9 in Stoney Creek, Arlene Vanderbeek’s Dundas bailiwick, and Judi Partridge’s Waterdown seat. The latter two voted against the recommendations of the independent review – the other two were absent but Pasuta took the same position via a letter to his colleagues. 

Fixing that inequality was the first principle of the independent reviewers who told city council last week that its tinkering “fails to meet the effective representation principle” because “the population imbalances continue to prevent the conclusion that this option is a notable improvement on the present system.”

Expected population changes over the next decade would make this inequality even more dramatic. By the 2026 election, the largest ward would have 70,000 residents – four times that of the smallest, and two and a half times two other wards. In total, eleven wards would be twice the size of the smallest by 2026.

The 15-seat option offered by the independent reviewers would impose significant changes (see maps) – eliminating Pasuta’s rural Flamborough ward entirely, re-jigging three mountain wards to four, re-dividing wards four and five in the lower east end, and substantially enlarging the geography covered by the Dundas, Ancaster and two Stoney Creek wards. Maria Pearson’s ward would add Winona, and Doug Conley’s upper Stoney Creek, both to the Niagara border at the expense of Brenda Johnson’s ward eleven that would now focus on rapidly growing Binbrook and Mount Hope. Only four councillors would keep their current boundaries.

The 16-seat option includes a large rural Flamborough ward for Pasuta, but moves to five mountain wards. The reviewers note that “over the 2001 to 2015 period, the City’s population has increased by the equivalent of one ward” and that 16-seat options were most favoured in the public consultation.

“Returning to an even number of councillors means that when all members of council are participating in a decision, the mayor could cast a tie-breaking vote rather than voting to create a tie – a move that blocks actions but cannot affirm a decision since a tied vote is deemed to be a lost vote,” notes their report. “In other words, it would be a contribution to better governance for the city.

An alternative 16-seat option that won the most support from public commenters has been dropped by the reviewers but could be revived by the OMB as a result of a citizen petition. Even a pie-shaped configuration where every ward was part-rural and part-urban could be imposed.

In response to October motions by Ferguson and Collins, staff reported the cost of an extra councillor would be 0.01% (one ten-thousandth) of the city’s annual budget. They also explained that both reviewer options would have no impact on the taxes of individual properties but they would mean that the Area Rating Capital Investment “amount received by each ward would be reduced as it would be shared among nine wards” The latter is an annual pot of money whose allocation is determined by each individual councillor in the old city.

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