A few weeks ago, I wrote about a motion passed by the District Municipal Modernization Committee which proposed reducing the size of the Muskoka District Council from 22 elected members and the District Chair to 18 elected members and the District Chair. This was in response to a Provincial requirement that all municipal councils in Ontario review their composition every other term.
While the proposal crafted by the committee would reduce the size of District Council by a modest four members, it also proposed that each of the six municipalities in Muskoka, regardless of population, have an equal number of three elected representatives on District Council. More importantly, the recommendations contained a provision for a super majority of twelve out of eighteen votes to pass significant motions related to finances, allocation of taxes, and the services that the District of Muskoka would provide.
This latter recommendation would change the balance of power on District Council in a manner that would effectively provide a veto to the township municipalities over the three urban towns that comprise the majority of Muskoka’s population, even when you include seasonal residents, and therefore the need for more infrastructure and municipal services.
Fortunately, it appears these recommendations will not go too far. Subsequently, the mayors of Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, and Huntsville have written to the District Municipal Modernization Committee stating that they cannot support their recommendations. Good for them, they are protecting their municipalities.
But really, when you get right down to it, all of this is little more than tinkering with a system of Regional/District Government in Muskoka that has grown out of control. And that, in my view, will never change as long as it is District Council itself that is responsible for deciding what they do, how they do it, and what they spend. There are simply too many competing factors, assessment versus population and rural versus urban.
The District Municipality of Muskoka has grown in leaps and bounds over the past three decades. Currently it has about 570 employees at an average annual wage of $62,868 per individual. It has an operating budget of over $80 million and that does not include costs for sewer and water. Duplication of services or where they can best be delivered has not been effectively addressed. Our roads are a good example of this.
There is little accountability for District priorities and spending because all District councillors also sit on their local municipal council. Their real accountability, especially at election time, is at that level and not at the District level. As well, collectively, Muskoka has almost twice the number of elected municipal representatives than the City of Toronto.
Surely, there is something wrong with this picture. We need serious reform of municipal government in Muskoka. Eliminating a few councillors here and there doesn’t cut it. Some will argue for a single-tier, Muskoka-wide municipal governance structure. Not my cup of tea for a number of reasons, not the least of which is my belief it would not be in the best interests of Huntsville. But it is an option, and it deserves to be on the table.
There are other options of course. Let’s look at two of them.
The first is one I have heard of. It would see the six current lower-tier municipalities in Muskoka reduced to three. This plan would combine Bracebridge and Gravenhurst as one municipality, Huntsville and the Township of Lake of Bays as another municipality, and the Townships of Muskoka Lakes and Georgian Bay as a third. District Council would be greatly reduced both in size and responsibility.
Another option, one that I tend to lean toward, would be two municipalities: South Muskoka and North Muskoka. South Muskoka would consist of Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, the south part of the Township of Muskoka Lakes, and the Township of Georgian Bay. North Muskoka would consist of the Township of Lake of Bays, the Town of Huntsville, and the northern portion of the Township of Muskoka Lakes including Rosseau.
Each of these two municipalities would be responsible for all local services within their boundaries, including roads, sewer and water, and planning. District responsibilities would be confined to those that fundamentally transcend the two local municipalities, such as long-term healthcare.
In terms of population, each municipality would be closer to that of the City of Orillia. Seasonal and permanent residents would be treated equally. Accountability to taxpayers would fall directly to locally elected councillors without the District being in the middle. The total number of elected representatives could be significantly reduced, perhaps to eight councillors and one mayor for each of the two municipalities, with the mayors and one councillor from each municipality acting at the District level.
The advantage of the first option is that it is simple. While it combines them, it does not “break up” any of the existing municipalities. The problem with this option as I see it, though, is the inequality of assessment. This would be particularly hard on the Bracebridge/Gravenhurst model as Bracebridge has less waterfront than the other municipalities in Muskoka and therefore less assessment. The second model, in my view, although more complicated and certainly more controversial, provides a more equal distribution of assessment.
Is all of this speculation pie-in-the-sky? Never going to happen? Quite possibly. Breaking up is always hard to do. But it shouldn’t be. Muskoka deserves better.
What we really need in Muskoka right now are municipal politicians who believe in less governance, more efficient governance, and more accountable governance. We will never get that by navel-gazing. What we need to do is to think outside the box, an exercise, while attempted from time to time, which has usually been shot down in favour of a more comfortable (for some politicians) status quo.
I repeat two things I believe strongly. First, Muskoka governance badly needs reform. Second, Muskoka municipal politicians may tinker with reform, but they will not effectively accomplish it. Over many years, they have proven that.
So, let’s have the courage to get the experts in here, with an arms-length commission on governance in Muskoka, where everyone can have their say.
Premier Ford has said he is open to reviewing Regional/District governments in Ontario. Let’s call him on it!
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