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City money may preserve unequal voting

Sep 18, 2017

A whack of public money may preserve unequal voting arrangements in Hamilton and help some city councillors keep their seats in next year’s election. The city has allocated $75,000 to the Ontario Municipal Board hearings that will decide whether to keep existing ward sizes or replace them with ones that are much more equal in size. 

After hiring consultants to review the ward sizes and conduct a year long public process, council rejected their recommendations by a vote of 11-3 and decided to maintain the current arrangements that have some residents getting several times more voting power than others. One of the two citizens who has challenged this decision and is pushing for voting parity is now asking the public to help him pay for expert witnesses to counter the city’s arguments.

Mark Richardson’s “ward equality now” campaign is seeking to raise $5000 through on-line donations “to hire some specialized legal talent” for his OMB appeal. The funding request was launched last week and raised over $2200 in its first four days. But even if fully successful, it will still leave the city with a fifteen-to-one financial advantage in a hearing before a quasi-judicial board that is notorious for rewarding whomever spends the most preparing and presenting its arguments.

“Hamilton's Ward 14 currently has about 14,000 residents, while Ward 7 has 62,000, and yet both have an equal vote in council, “Richardson argues. “This OMB challenge, if successful, will create wards with a balanced population distribution, ensuring effective municipal representation for ALL Hamiltonians.”

The existing ward system displays multiple other population inequalities that convinced the consultants to strongly reject it and tell councillors last February that it “does not meet the expectations of three of the guiding principles [of ward sizes] – representation by population, population and electoral trends, and effective representation.” They reached this conclusion even though they were willing to accept that ward populations could vary by as much as 25 percent above or 25 percent below the average. In Toronto, the adopted standard was only 10 percent variation either way.

The configuration which Hamilton council approved and is now backing with $75,000 at the OMB has three wards that are more than 25 percent above the average including one that is 87 percent higher. And it also has three other wards which are about half as populated as the average and predicts major differences will continue to the 2026 election despite forecast population growth.

In the public consultations carried out by the consultants last year about the ward sizes only seven percent of residents supported retaining the status quo. Two-thirds endorsed the option that added one more ward and most equalized ward sizes in response to the population growth since amalgamation.

In addition to opposing any significant changes in the status quo, and endorsing the $75,000 budget for the OMB hearings, some councillors are actively recruiting individual residents to speak in favour of no change. Judi Partridge is calling on residents of her Waterdown ward to register to speak to the Board but only “if they’re comfortable to come and speak to why we need to keep our boundaries they way they are.” Terry Whitehead also appears to have organized residents for the same purpose, including his paid constituency representative.

The disregard for representation by population has persisted since amalgamation and has been particularly beneficial to the former suburban municipalities who have seven of council’s fifteen seats even though the population of the old city of Hamilton is substantially larger. At amalgamation it was more than twice the size of the suburban areas, and even today the old city still has 63 percent of the population.

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