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Council made it easy for the OMB to redraw wards

Dec 18, 2017

Council handed the Ontario Municipal Board multiple reasons to redraw the city’s ward boundaries by undermining its own witnesses and relying on dishonest arguments about protecting the agricultural community. The result is much greater voter equity, but unfortunately a further substantial reduction in representation for the public.

The OMB decision notes bluntly that council’s proposed wards “were little more than tweaks from the existing boundaries”, and concludes that they were “not reasonable”. That’s a particularly significant finding in the light of the OMB ruling on Toronto’s ward boundaries that was also released last week. It said that the OMB overruling a council decision on boundaries can only occur “in the clearest of cases”.

Council’s characterization of the rural Flamborough Ward 14 as an agricultural community is not supported by the facts. The city’s published ward profile reveals less that than 5% of its workforce is engaged in agriculture. That’s not surprising since even a decade ago there were less than a thousand farms in the entire city including Glanbrook and the rural areas of Ancaster and Stoney Creek.

Far from being farmers, the vast majority of the 16,000 residents of ward 14 are like most of the city’s rural population who work in urban areas but prefer to live in the country. Consequently ward 14 residents are the richest in Hamilton. The OMB noted that even as far back as 2010 the average income in the Flamborough ward was over $106,000 and concludes that “the effect of the city’s preferred ward boundaries was to provide greater voting power to citizens with much greater wealth relative to downtown wards.”

The Board also refers to racial profiles in a city where nearly 20% are visible minorities: “By contrast the wards with lower populations whose rural or suburban status is proposed to be protected [by council] – Wards 13, 14 and 15 – each have visible minority populations of 6.3, 3.0 and 6.1% respectively.”

The city undermined the credibility of its own consultants. It brought them as witnesses to the OMB hearings to support council's slightly tweaked boundaries even though the consultants had earlier rejected these as failing to adhere to the principles that council had endorsed. As the Board noted about the earlier rejection:

“This alone should have been a distressing report card on the status quo or any option that maintained the essential characteristics of the existing structure.  However the existing structure remained remarkably alluring to council, and despite the poor scoring by the consultants, both council and their consultants were able in a later iteration to support an option very similar to the status quo.”

This changed position on the boundaries was made by the city in order to obtain a settlement with one of the two citizens who appealed its initial decision. This slight redrawing moved part of the Ainslie Wood neighbourhood into the Dundas ward which generated a string of intervenors from Ainslie Wood residents and McMaster students and resulted in further damning commentary from the OMB.

“It appeared to the Board that the consultant team did not really understand that this split had occurred as a result of the settlement,” stated the Board. “Nor did they apparently understand or consider any consequences that may flow from it, while professing it could support the reworked boundaries as appropriate.”

However, Hamilton residents are faced with an effective reduction in elected representatives.  Population growth since amalgamation in 2001 justifies at least two more Hamilton wards. But that isn’t happening, in contrast to the OMB Toronto decision where extra council seats have been added to account for an increase in population. Amalgamation slashed the number of elected councillors from 59 down to 16 leaving just one representative for each 33,000 residents.

Last week's decision to keep a 15-ward arrangement ignores population growth since amalgamation. And this will remain until at least 2026 when wards are expected to average over 42,000 people each – growth that should result in 20 wards if the standard set at amalgamation were applied.

The city’s consultants had offered a 16-ward option and it was by far the most favoured by the public who participated in the consultation process. The Board says it “did not seriously turn its attention to a 16-ward option, not because it was a poor option to consider, but because neither the appellants nor the city suggested it should be considered.” 

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