The Gauntlet is Down …
As most people are aware, municipal elections will be held this Fall and until this past Friday, at least in Huntsville, it was beginning to look pretty ho-hum. Scott Aitchison may well be acclaimed as Mayor, and if he is opposed, he shouldn’t have too much trouble winning a second term, assuming he wants it. No doubt there will be a couple of new faces vying for council seats but most of the current incumbents will run again and, in my view, most will get re-elected.
On the face of it, with no really big issues on the horizon, this is pretty boring stuff that does little to encourage people to get out and vote. All of that changed, however, late last week when Gord Adams announced that he was running to be elected as District Chair of Muskoka.
For the very first time the District Chair will be elected at large, across all of Muskoka. This is a result of legislation toward the end of the Wynne government’s regime, which mandated election at large for all Regional and District (same thing) Chairs in Ontario. Where Muskoka is concerned, I thought it was a mistake then and I still do. It effectively creates a super mayor. The District Chair will now have an elected mandate across all of Muskoka, something that no other elected municipal official, including mayors, will have. It creates a municipal power base unprecedented in Muskoka.
Gord Adams has thrown down the gauntlet in a manner that should make all of us sit up and pay attention. Adams is a former mayor of Gravenhurst and a former chair of Muskoka. He is no stranger to local politics. I actually like the guy and worked well with him when he was District Chair and I was mayor of Huntsville. But I don’t like what he stands for now, because his declared platform is pretty straight forward and goes right to the jugular.
Gord Adams is an advocate of One Muskoka. He wants to do away with the entire lower tier of governance in Muskoka. Municipalities and Townships in Muskoka would disappear as corporate entities. There would be no more Huntsville, no more Bracebridge, no more Gravenhurst, as we know them now, and the Townships would also disappear. The single governance structure for all of Muskoka, if Adams were to get his way, would be District-wide, headed of course by the super mayor. One Muskoka advocates such as former Muskoka Algonquin Health Care Chair, Evelyn Brown, will be jumping with delight.
I know of no Regional or District Council in the entire Province of Ontario that has become the sole level of governance for their area and I see no reason for that to happen in Muskoka. Regional (District) Councils were intended to provide cost-effective services for overlapping responsibilities between lower-tier municipalities. They were never intended to be the primary source of governance and nor should they be.
I am a strong believer in local government. It is at that level that elected officials are held most accountable and it is there that many municipal services can be delivered most efficiently. Only where there are exceptions to that rule, where services such as welfare and sewer and water can be more effectively shared among local municipalities, is another level of bureaucracy such as District government required.
In my view, District government in Muskoka has grown out of control and taken on far more responsibility over the years than was intended or is necessary at that level. It employs the equivalent of 530 full-time employees and spends more than $73 million a year. Sewer and water costs are in addition to that. As well, District councillors, who are also local councillors and paid for that, have voted themselves a whopping increase starting with the next term of office. They have also completely ducked the issue of reducing the size of their council.
Gord Adams has said that he believes that District council in its present form is almost dysfunctional. I would agree with him. But I have no reason to believe it, or a similar structure, would be less dysfunctional as the sole governing body in Muskoka. There is also no question that we have far too many councillors in Muskoka. There is a simple solution to that. Local councils can reduce the number of elected officials in their municipalities and members of District Council can cut their numbers at least in half.
Thanks to Gord Adams and the Wynne government, the issue of a single-governance model in Muskoka is now in play. The District Chair, now with a Muskoka-wide mandate, will have a powerful base from which to influence Muskoka’s future. Adams’ intent is clear and that is to “propose the dissolution of all seven municipal governments in Muskoka and over the next four years to design a single-governance structure to address ongoing issues in the region.”
And so, the gauntlet is thrown down and the question is what to do about it? It is fair game to debate single-tier governance in Muskoka, especially since it has been put on the table. But it will also be important to discuss drastic reform of District Government by reducing its responsibilities and making it more accountable to local municipalities.
The municipal election in October will now effectively be a referendum on the future of local government in Muskoka. That in itself makes it a very important election. Mayors of local municipalities and mayoral candidates will have to express their views on losing corporate control of their Townships and Towns. Indeed, the three Townships, who carry the larger portion of assessment in Muskoka, will need to decide how they feel about subsidizing the Towns to a greater degree than at present. Others will ask, if Muskoka is a single municipality, what is our argument for two hospitals?
Candidates for municipal election will have to stand up and be counted on this issue of governance. It will be a game changer.
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