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Local democracy now up to OMB

Aug 07, 2017

The shape of next year’s council election is now in the hands of two members of the Ontario Municipal Board. Deliberations started last week on how many wards Hamilton will have and how equal their populations will be, with clashes over the number of alternatives the OMB will consider, and whether it will rule on the ethics of city council’s choice to reject change. 

Toronto’s ward boundaries are also being revised, but in that city a solid majority of councillors endorsed change despite a much higher standard of population equity in the redistribution formula. In Hamilton, council voted 11-3 to keep a system where there are 300 percent more people in the largest ward on the mountain than in the smallest one in rural Flamborough. In Toronto, more than two-thirds of councillors endorsed an arrangement where no ward varies by more than 15 percent. 

In Hamilton, the council decision is being appealed by two members of the public – Stoney Creek resident Mark Richardson and Dundas lawyer Rob Dobrucki. In Toronto the OMB challenge comes from two city councillors unhappy with their colleagues’ endorsement of reforms that add three new wards.

While independent consultants in Hamilton re-drew wards on the principle that the populations should not vary by more than 25 percent, the consultants in Toronto contended that reasonable equity demanded a maximum 15 percent variation. Both strongly argued the status quo in the respective cities was not acceptable.  

“The population size of a ward affects how residents are represented at city council not just at election time, but every time council votes,” Toronto staff declared. “It also influences how well councillors can represent the number of people in a ward.”

“Voting weights do not need to be identical but they must be 'similar' and within a reasonable range,” they continue. “As the variances increase above 10 percent, concerns about voter parity increase and above 15 percent it becomes problematic, unless convincing extenuating circumstances are involved.”

Last fall, Dobrucki offered Hamilton councillors free redistribution maps with no more than a 10 percent variation between wards. But the majority of councillors wouldn’t even support the 25 percent variation served up by the city’s hired consultants and instead chose a slightly tweaked status quo.

They have now hired outside lawyers to defend their decision at an unrevealed cost. At last week’s pre-hearing Steven Ferri said he would need five days to present his defence of the council position. Dobrucki and Richardson asked for one day each and the Board decided to hold a special evening session to hear from a dozen individuals who registered as participants.

The majority of participants come from the west mountain ward represented by Terry Whitehead. His executive assistant is one of them and Whitehead sat through the two and a half hour OMB pre-hearing last week. There’s also a representative of the downtown Beasley Neighbourhood Association.

A mid-September hearing will decide whether the Board will consider accusations by Richardson that councillors acted in bad faith by approving the principles guiding their consultants and then rejecting both options they provided. The main hearing will start October 19 and run for seven days plus the evening session. Board chair Bruce Krushelnicki emphasized that a final decision will be made in time for the January start of next year’s municipal election campaign. 

“I don’t want it to go any later than mid-November because we have to write our decision before the end of the year,” he said.

Krushelnicki was chosen the overall chair of the OMB when he was appointed in 2015 after being Director of Planning in Burlington for eleven years. He is joined in this hearing by Paula Boutis. Last week they decided that up to five alternative ward boundary maps can be considered, and also ordered the city to provide Dobrucki unpublished population data.

Ferri’s Toronto law firm has an extensive ward boundaries position statement on their website that argues “a deviation in population of 25 percent to 33 percent among municipal wards is tolerable”. It also points to a 2009 OMB decision that the Board should “only amend or repeal a decision of municipality on ward boundary matters if there is a compelling reason to do so”. 

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