Listen Up! Election of District chair gives us a chance to debate governance at that level

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Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

We need a vigorous election campaign for District Chair

There is a letter in one of the local papers this week from an organization called One Muskoka. To the best of my knowledge, they only have a handful of members, but they have been quite vocal in recent years about the need to reduce the size of government in Muskoka. To that extent, I am with them. As they have pointed out, the entire city of Toronto has 44 councillors and Muskoka has 52. It is very hard to defend that.

One Muskoka goes to great lengths to insist that they are not advocating a single governance structure for all of Muskoka, a move that would effectively eliminate local municipalities. But I don’t buy it. In that regard, I fear they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They call themselves One Muskoka. It is difficult to believe that is not what they stand for. They strongly support the election of the District Chair across Muskoka, creating a ‘super mayor’ with a District-wide mandate, a move that will strengthen the argument for those who advocate a single municipal structure for all of Muskoka. As well, a co-founder of One Muskoka, Evelyn Brown, is now Chair of MAHC, our Hospital Board, and she has been very clear in her preference for a single-site hospital in Muskoka. One Muskoka indeed.

In their letter, Denise Cooper and Catherine King, who speak for One Muskoka, are critical of Mayor Bob Young, who is Chair of a committee struck by District Council to review the size of its membership. They quote him as saying, when given this task, “Change is perceived as evil and to be avoided at all costs. I will nonetheless approach the discussion in a positive manner.” Obviously, the authors don’t know sarcasm when they hear it and they certainly don’t know Bob Young, which makes me wonder if they really know what goes on at District. Bob Young, who is Mayor of the Township of Lake of Bays, is very close to a lone voice in the wilderness when it comes to advocating for the reform of District Government. During his years on District Council he has continually challenged the status quo. He knows he has been handed a hopeless task, and that was the nature of his remarks.

In my view, meaningful reform of District Government cannot come from within. The majority of District Councillors are too satisfied with the status quo and the double stipends that go with it. With some notable exceptions, many District Councillors average about ten hours a month on District business which gives them an hourly pay rate of well over $100 an hour! It’s a nice job if you can get it! They may talk the talk, but at the end of the day, Council will not curtail their numbers in a meaningful way and they will likely cling to control of District Council by the Towns, even though the majority of tax dollars come from the Townships.

District Government has become the largest ‘business’ in Muskoka. Centred in Bracebridge, it oversees a bureaucracy of more than 500 employees and a budget in excess of $117 million. It has grown like a weed over the years, and yet Muskoka itself has not grown a square inch. There is no evidence that it operates more efficiently than the local municipalities and some of its jurisdiction simply makes no sense. Why, for instance, should a District Councillor from Honey Harbour in Georgian Bay Township have a vote on whether Brunel Road in Huntsville can be temporarily closed for a community event?

The election at large of the Chair of Muskoka District Government, in spite of its drawbacks, may have a silver lining. It may become the forum through which the role of District Government and the importance of the lower tier municipalities in Muskoka can be discussed and debated. We need to deliver services in our local communities in a manner that promotes efficiency, avoids duplication and minimizes bureaucracy.

In that sense, it would be good to have a vigorous campaign when it comes to the election of the District Chair. That will only happen if good and experienced people, who believe in the importance of local government, step forward as candidates. Word has it that John Klinck, the current Chair of Muskoka District Council will seek another term. He may well hope that the expense of running a District-wide campaign will discourage other candidates and that he would win by acclamation. But that must not happen.

With the election of the District Chair at large, the winner, by definition, will become the senior elected municipal official in Muskoka. We may not see it now, but it will make a difference. It is important, therefore, that we have candidates for that position who are prepared and able to deal with the hard issues related to the delivery of local municipal services in Muskoka. The status quo is too expensive and too bureaucratic and overloaded with politicians. We need a healthy discussion about District Government in Muskoka and an election campaign for the District Chair might be just the place to have it. Hopefully, there are potential candidates out there that feel the same way.

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7 Comments

  1. Hugh you any I are thinking more alike all the time. You comments are 100 per cent. One Muskoka has no backing that I can see, and in my opinion we are in trouble with Evelyn Brown as the Chair of MHAC as she has no idea what the people of Muskoka and East Parry Sound want and need. She has never been elected to anything by the people to make decisions for the people. One Muskoka is for that one government situated in Bracebridge and perhaps one hospital there also. Muskoka is too large for one government, too diverse, as you pointed out, what does a member from Honey Harbor know about Dwight and the same goes for a member of council from Dwight about Georgian Bay? Huntsville and Lake Of Bays have more in common with Emsdale and Burks Falls. The electing of a Chair at large will point towards more District Government if we are not careful. You are right that the size of the District has grown way more than I thought, just look at the Pine Street complex and the number of District cars and trucks all over Muskoka.
    Roads and planning should be at the local level. If we can not get rid of this 2 tier out of control system, the cost of running District wide will be prohibitive for most potential candidates and who will have the time to canvas this large area known as Muskoka. My last comment is regarding the size of council; this has been discussed for years, and in my opinion is a not a major issue tax wise for the people of Muskoka. The budget for council is quite low compared to the other departments. Bring planning and roads back to the lower tier and the savings would be tremendous, re the duplication and staff at both levels. More later…

    .

  2. John k. Davis on

    What is it politicians and media say? Elections are not the time to debate policies, that should be done between elections. The City of Kawartha Lakes did exactly that and with the 2018 election they will be reducing the size of their (District) government from 16 councillors and 1 Mayor to 8 Councillors and 1 Mayor. These Councillors were serious about reducing their size and did it. We have had many who have proclaimed when running for election, that when elected, they would work towards working themselves out of a job, instead staff and budgets continue to grow with even greater intrusions into the lives of its citizens. Empire building at all levels of Muicipal government seems to be their Raison D’être. Encourage those you believe has the ability to lead, not just follow, now, not next year then help them.

  3. Hugh,

    I totally agree with your comments about One Muskoka. We have enough problems today representing the diverse intersts of Muskoka from the Georgian Bay Islands to the edge of Algonquin Park. There are some who seem to believe that Bracebridge is the Centre of the Universe – but they are clearly delusional.
    However, I do not agree woth your support of election of the District Chair at large. To have to canvas across the whole of Muskoka is physically and fiscally impossible. Just to print and distribute signs would cost many thousands of dollars. Who will undertake such expenditures? – very few, in my opinion. What I believe will happen is that someone from the larger towns will put their name forward and focus their canvassing on one or two of the towns, totally ignoring the Townships. Another issue is that residents in the Townships have a limited knowledge of the District (even though it is their largest unfunded libaility). How can we expect them to make a reasoned decision on a District chair.
    With respect to District Coucnil Composition, if you really want to think outside the box (and perhaps the planet), we should look at changing from a District to a County which better reprsents or demographics and political requirements. Then we would have two representatives from each municipality and a Warden who is non-elected and is a shared responsibility amongst the municipal Mayors.

  4. Hugh Mackenzie on

    Bob: To be clear, I do NOT agree with the election of the District Chair at large and never have, as stated in my column above. However, given it has been forced upon us, I did say that perhaps the silver lining is that an election campaign for District Chair will provide an opportunity to debate District Government.

  5. Frances Botham on

    I am trying to recall, with difficulty, those who held the positions of District Chair and District Councillors and at that time made proactive recommendations to reduce the size of this governance and atrocious burden on the taxpayers. It must have happened, but it’s escaped my memory.

  6. It is with respect for you Hugh that we respond to the commentary. When you postulate that One Muskoka is a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, you are very wrong. In fact, all we care about is Muskoka as a cooperative, collaborative region, famous for not only our beautiful environment, but equally how well we work together. This is the underpinning philosophy of our group’s name ” One Muskoka”

    So, enough with the parochial Huntsville against Bracebridge against Gravenhurst, etc. etc. We have more power if we work together as One. Not one political structure but One Muskoka governed as we see fit, whether it’s status quo, shared service agreements, one level of governance, or …. We have researched various options and have some ideas, but do not have the expertise to offer a strong recommendation . A Governance Review by experts may help us develop a Made in Muskoka model that will work for all communities and residents. That’s it, no hidden agendas, just pure common sense ……
    One Muskoka
    Denise Cooper
    Catherine King

  7. Howard Rosenthal on

    The editorial and comments above are right on the mark. I have said the following: District cannot fix itself due to the vested interests of the councilors and the towns; the two tier structure of the district governance creates several problems including costs and un-informed decision making as noted in the comments above. I have recommend (in a letter to the Forester and comments at the open meeting on district council structure a couple weeks ago, that we should consider dividing Muskoka into three areas, Muskoka East (Lake of Bays and Huntsville, basically east of highway 11; Muskoka Center, basically Bracebridge and Lakes Muskoka and Rosseau, and Muskoka West basically Gravenhurst and Lake Joseph.

    In order to achieve certain economies of scale a central administrative function should exist for common functions, and the oversight should be from the three mayors only. No function or service provided by the central administrative function should be duplicated in any of the regions, and these may include purchasing, tax collection, planning, waste, roads, etc.

    In any case, we know that this will not happen in the short term, certainly not in time for 2018. So what we need is leadership that will guide the District and Towns/Townships in a direction that will reduce the size of governance and cost duplication and work with the Province toward restructuring for the future. I don’t think any of the current leadership can fill this role. It will have to be a new people, at least in the role of District chair!

    I have even thought of taking on this role myself with the goal of significant reductions and savings by 2022.

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