There are two important meetings being held next week by the District of Muskoka and people should pay attention to them.
These meetings both relate to a motion proposed by the District’s Municipal Modernization Committee to reduce the size of District Council and consider other changes. The District has asked for public input in relation to these changes. You can see the notice here.
The Ontario Municipal Act requires all municipalities—Regional, District and lower tier—to review the composition of their Councils every other term.
The motion put forward by the District Municipal Modernization Committee proposes the reduction of District Councillors by four elected representatives, but it also proposes much more than that: a fundamental change in the way District Government works and a potential change in the balance of power.
Let’s look at the motion and then discuss what it really means.
The Motion reads:
THAT Muskoka District Council be reduced from 22 Members and a District Chair to 18 Members and a District Chair with equal members from each of the six lower-tier Municipalities comprised of the Mayor and two Councillors;
AND THAT a District Chair will be elected by those elected to District Council;
AND THAT the District Chair will be allowed to vote and will become a tie-break when needed;
AND THAT voting will require a majority of Council to move items forward;
AND THAT [there be] an amendment to the procedural by-law to prohibit changes to the current service delivery, financial structure or cost apportionment billing models associated with the District operations unless a “significant majority” of Council is in agreement;
AND THAT a “significant majority” of council will be defined as 12;
AND THAT staff be directed to provide wording on the requirement for significant majority at the next meeting of MMC to be held prior to the February 2021 District Council meeting.
Here are the problems with this Motion:
Under this proposal, the three urban municipalities which have the vast majority of permanent residents, along with the Township of Muskoka Lakes, each lose one elected representative and therefore one vote at District Council. The result of this on its face would be that the urban municipalities, where the majority of municipal services are required, cannot control their own agenda as it can now with 12 of the 22 seats on District Council.
Further, when you add a “significant majority”, which is really a super majority, of 12 votes out of 18 for almost all significant responsibilities of District Council, including finances, allocation of taxes, and what services the District offers, the balance of power shifts dramatically to Township municipalities who require only four votes to adjudicate or control the requirements of urban municipalities to serve their much-larger populations and, as well, those of seasonal residents who receive Town services that are not available in the Township municipalities. This is simply not in the best interests of Muskoka.
I do understand and I empathize with the fact that much of the assessment in Muskoka—and therefore many of the funds required to meet the needs of all six municipalities in the District—lies within the Township municipalities, where a large number of our seasonal residents with more expensive properties reside. But that is no reason for a calculated move to change the balance of power. While one could argue that the three Township municipalities have been treated unfairly in terms of assessment, this proposed change would simply put the shoe on the other foot, where the assessment controls the permanent population. That is no solution, and it is no step forward in modernizing or reforming District Government.
This resolution also calls for the District Chair to continue to be elected only by members of District Council. So much for giving that some more thought. The District Chair has no constituency and no mandate from anyone other than members of District Council. Yet this position commands a salary schedule cumulating next year in more than $90,000 including expenses, far higher than any of the elected mayors in Muskoka who have the grassroots and hands-on responsibilities.
To top it off, this proposed resolution and change in how District Government operates would give a full vote to the Chair. Currently the District Chair can only vote in the event of a tie. Effectively, this change means that the number of voting representatives on Council would really only be reduced by three and not four. Further, it is a real question for me whether an individual with no municipally elected constituency should have a vote with the same weight as those that do.
As well, although one District Councillor I have spoken to assures me this is not the case, a plain reading of the resolution does say, “The District Chair will be allowed to vote AND (my emphasis) will become a tie-break when needed.” In plain language that says to me that the Chair can vote to create a tie and then vote to break it. That needs to be clarified.
I have long argued that District Government in Muskoka needs serious reform. I still believe that, perhaps more than ever. But this isn’t it. There is no reform or effective modernization in this motion. District Government has been talking reform for decades and this motion comes across as a weak attempt to show that they are listening.
In its previous term, District Councillors did give consideration to some serious reforms needed in their governance structure. In the end, however, these efforts failed. Even less has been done during this term of District Council to assess the services that District Government provides, where efficiencies can be found, whether there are services that can be better delivered at the local level, and where there are bureaucrats and elected politicians that can be reduced. Suggesting a reduction of only three full members of Council is little short of tokenism.
District Government in Muskoka is now many decades old and has, in my view, grown over the years like a behemoth, without much oversight or accountability. It now manages a budget of well over $75 million and that does not include the cost of sewer and water.
It’s past time we saw thoroughly how this money—our money—is being spent. That, in my view, will never happen with an internal review by District Council. It will only happen with an arms-length, provincially mandated overview and report. Sadly, in spite of assurances by the Ford Government, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one either.
In the meantime, I hope District Council will see this latest motion from the District Municipal Modernization Committee for what it is. It is not modernizing; more importantly it is not reform. It does nothing to improve District Council.
It is just a bunch of self-serving codswallop.
Don’t miss out on Doppler!
Sign up here to receive our email digest with links to our most recent stories.
Local news in your inbox three times per week!