Listen Up! Gord Adams is running for District Chair and promoting single-tier governance

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Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

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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18 Comments

  1. Mr. Mackenzie, you nailed it. I cannot think of a worse approach to an effective third tier of government. In the past several decades, we have witnessed a growing loss of our local voice to the point where, with this proposal, it will be gone altogether.

  2. Well it won’t be a boring election that’s for sure. Glad to see Gord stirring things up a bit. I hope people listen to the options the candidates bring to the table and really think about things before discounting a different viewpoint.

    • Frances Botham on

      Agree with Susan. A different direction is not necessarily bad. Before rushing to “RAH” the negative aspect, let’s look at the financial and actual local repercussions.

  3. Dave Stewart on

    What is the size of the problem?
    Can someone tell me how many councillors in total are elected to the towns , townships and district and what their total salaries and office expenses will be going fwd.?
    Suspecting a very large # , if the local councils will not reduce their size , perhaps Gord’s single tier government is the only solution to our overly expensive “admin”.

    • Hi Dave

      Good question , although I believe the benefits in transparency, consistency, representation far outway the financial savings that come with critical mass.

      I pulled all these figures from Area, District and Ministry of Finance web sites , can’t claim they’re
      accurate.

      Muskoka District 21 Councillors @ $20,750 Chair $86,000 = $542,000 CAO $204,000
      Huntsville 8 Councillors @ $19,000 Mayor $37,800 = $190,000 $151,000
      Bracebridge 8 Councillors @ $20,000 Mayor $33,000 = $193,000 $147,000
      Gravenhurst 8 Councillors @ $18,500 Mayor $38,000 = $186,000 $194,000
      Lake of Bays 6 Councillors @ $20,000 Mayor $45,000 = $165,000 $140,000
      Georgian Bay 6 Councillors @ $ ? Mayor ? = $206,000 $151,000
      Muskoka Lakes 9 Councillors @ $14,000 Mayor $38,000 = $164,000 $156,000

      Treasures have similar spread Muskoka Highest at $170,000 Georgian Bay Lowest at $115,000

      Hope this helps. Happy to discuss further sometime.

      4 Muskoka

      Gord

  4. Well said Hugh.

    As I said in my first interview on Friday last, fear is much easier to sell than change.
    As fear mongering goes, I’ll give your opinion an 8 out of ten, even managed to drag the hospitals into the mix.
    I too, like you, enjoyed the time we worked together for the good of Muskoka.

    However, I must weigh in.

    You say, 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.

    Come on Hugh, who are you trying to kid. Here are some examples, Regional Municipality of Sudbury was dissolved in 2000 and became the Greater City of Sudbury and County of Haldimand/Norfolk was dissolved in 2001 and became City of Haldimand and the City of Norfolk, Victoria County was dissolved in 2000 and became The City of Kawartha Lakes, There are more examples, however these populations and areas most closely share values with Muskoka. Muskoka local Councillors chose to stand pat in 2000.

    You also claim, Huntsville, Bracebridge, Gravenhurst, Muskoka Lakes, Georgian Bay and Lake of Bays would cease to exist as we know them today, and this is true. It’s also true, they are completely different entities than they were before amalgamation in 1971. And, they will be different again in 25 years.
    I should note the same fear was raised in 1971, Port Sydney, Dwight, Aspdin, Severn Bridge, Mactier, Baysville, Kilworthy, Bala, Port Carling, to name a few, were all going to lose their identity, NEVER HAPPENED.

    You also claim, the local municipality can deliver public services more efficiently. Please share with your readers the unbiased studies which support that notion.

    Every unbiased, professional analysis done for Muskoka in the past 50 years would dispute that claim. In fact they have all estimated between 4 and 7 per cent savings through amalgamation.
    Any successful business would jump at such an opportunity, Why Doesn’t Government.

    You say, You don’t like what I stand for now. In fact, I have believed Muskoka would be better served by an amalgamation of her 7 municipalities since the late 90’s. We stopped beating our heads against the wall when in 2000 we tried to get the triple majority required to change the legislation and failed. The three towns voted against it at the local level although the Mayors of Huntsville and Gravenhurst voted in favor at District.

    Municipal elections right across Muskoka have become , in your words, pretty Ho Hum. We can agree on that, although I don’t believe it’s because people are satisfied with the current structure.

    You say, The simple solution would be to reduce the number of Councillors at each table. That’s kinda like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
    Let’s be honest, there is no simple solution.

    Hugh, If Muskoka residents do take notice, as we hope they do, I look forward to the debate over the summer and fall. If so, then my throwing down the gauntlet will have been worth the effort.

    • Hugh Mackenzie on

      You are right about other regional governments that have amalgamated, Gord. My gut told me I should have researched that before writing it. My bad. I stand by my other comments, however. As I said in my column, it is fair game to debate single-tier governance during the municipal election. But there cannot be debate unless there is more than one point of view. That is not “fear mongering”. That is democracy.

  5. I agree with Susan. The entire issue needs a thorough airing. Maybe it’s time for an independent study , one where the foxes aren’t deciding the fate of the chickens.
    Certainly we are way over governed in Muskoka. Surely that is beyond dispute.
    Past attempts to modify this in a meaningful way have been stymied.
    I don’t think it is reasonable to conflate the structure on municipal government with the hospitals issue. That, with greatest respect, is similar to calling someone racist when they wish to discuss immigration.
    We have been told that the Province will not initiate a review of local government unless there is a local request for it. It seems clear that councils are very unlikely to initiate what could lead to their own demise
    It is past time for the Province to intervene and begin a review.

  6. I agree this will make the municipal elections very interesting this year. My hope is that it will not overshadow the importance of the current issues each municipality faces over the next four years.

    The main argument for the amalgamation of local governments is a reduction in administration thus reduced overall costs “estimated between 4 and 7 per cent”. When put that way it seems like an easy sell, of course, everyone wants to pay less tax for roughly the same service. I believe that is oversimplifying the scenario.

    Off the top of my head here are a few issues that would require more insight and thoughtful discussion before such a drastic change is made.

    Bylaws- Each municipality has their own set of bylaws that have been crafted by different councils over time. These bylaws reflect the wants and needs of the residents of that municipality. The question then becomes which bylaws would be adopted by a single tier government. Lake of Bays has very different bylaws regarding lakefront development than Muskoka Lakes does.

    Capital projects – Every municipality has a list of projects(roads, libraries, bridges) that are a priority. What happens with an amalgamation? My best guess is a reassessment of those priorities. Then going further down the rabbit hole how are those projects prioritized? By how many people they serve? By how many votes they get at the council table? By listening to the squeaky wheel?
    Bracebridge is looking a getting a new library, does a resident of Huntsville want to help pay for that library? Maybe they want a new library as well.

    Debt – Every municipality has varying levels of debt. Are taxes going up in Georgian Bay to pay for the Summit Centre debenture in Huntsville?

    These are just a few of the hurdles that would need some serious consideration before any decision was made. If we can learn anything from the Brexit situation it is that it is easy to sell an idea. It is much harder to figure out the details.

    For the record, I don’t have my mind set one way or the other. My goal is to flush out the thoughts and ideas to encourage critical thinking of a very complex issue.

    • Jeremy, You raise some good questions which should be responded to.

      If you, or any other commenters, would reach out to me at “[email protected]” I will send you the last unbiased analysis of the positive and negative effects of restructuring in Muskoka done in 2000. Many of the questions you raised are addressed in the document.

      I believe the findings are more relevant today then they were in 2000.

      4 Muskoka

      Gord

  7. Jim Logagianes on

    Government in Muskoka is not affordable or sustainable. That is the reality that we face moving forward. A year round population under 80,000 can not justify supporting the current structure. Muskoka could afford adequate healthcare if we changed our current model. All Canadians in the future will be forced to make tough decisions as the baby boom tsunami bears down on us. What Hugh should have touched on in all fairness is if amalgamation can be achieved while realizing significant savings?
    Sadly, when the GTA amalgamated there were no real savings upon completion. Mr. Adams should provide us with cost comparisons so that we can evaluate the cost effectiveness of his proposal. We will all be expected to pay to support any new form of Government in Muskoka. Let’s see the numbers, so that we the taxpayers can scrutinize your proposal before we drink the koolaid.

  8. I agree with Hugh. In general, the best and most democratic structure for government is DE-centralized. The further an individual is from the point where the decisions are made affecting his/her life, the more powerless the individual feels and, in fact, becomes. If I don’t like something that is going on locally, or want to weigh in on an issue, I can email or pick up the phone and call my local councilor. With the assurance that my vote for him is one of a much smaller pool of voters, I am much more likely to get attention paid to my issue as well as receiving a prompt response. When a larger more centralized structure is formed, a much larger bureaucracy is fostered and the face of that bureaucracy is no longer a neighbor or friend but some much more anonymous individual who is off in an area that is many kilometers from my home. It becomes much more difficult to oversee expenditures as well.

    Those who study democracies have already advised, many years ago, that keeping government as small as possible is the way to assure more efficiency in the delivery of services and to give the people more of a voice in how their tax dollars are spent. When a more centralized authority grabs the reins of government, along with the spending power that is there, expect to have less and less say about how that government operates. Have we not had enough of unresponsive governmental structures along with their enormous demands for more and more tax money? How many of us have contacted a provincial official with a concern only to have some bureaucrat refuse to discuss the issue? Even our elected officials are intimidated by the size and power of the “professional” bureaucracy that we have allowed to be created. The Globe and Mail actually had an editorial yesterday on the entirely bloated health bureaucracy in this province–which basically doubled in size during the last 15 years of Liberal government. Nearly 40% of our provincial tax dollars now go to this enormous octopus. And for all of that, are we getting better healthcare? Is work life any easier for the front line staff who actually do the work of dispensing services?

    The tax-and-spend liberals are, of course, more interested in more and more ($) power to them and less and less power for the people to raise any objection to their tax grab ways. I’m not surprised that they favor regional government over local government.

  9. If all of the Mayors in Muskoka run for District Chair , at least 6 of them would be out on their butts and looking to get hired by the developers and real estate brokers and planners who owe them a favour.

  10. If this specious “4 to 7%” was excerpted from a 1990 report, then how much validity does it actually have? Does it represent the much-trumpeted economies of scale? Or is it more indicative of savings from layoffs? And in that case, which employees do you retain: the local ones who are more cognizant of the local problems? or the regional ones who have more “global” knowledge? or anybody possible from the “sunshine list”? But don’t forget that they earned their way onto this list, and are fairly owed a year or two’s golden parachute. So initially the savings won’t be recognized.
    .
    As an ancillary query, what SEVEN area municipalities exist in Muskoka?

  11. Hugh Holland on

    I agree with Hugh Mackenzie. The geography and population patterns of Muskoka are unique. No matter where you locate a centralized municipal government, at least 50% of the population would have to make an additional one-hour round trip to pay their taxes, get a permit, or perhaps most importantly to provide citizen input to public meetings. Municipal staff would take much longer to go to a work site or inspect a job site. These external costs would add up to several times the potential savings in internal costs.

  12. Jim Sinclair on

    I am all for getting rid of District Council altogether. Any time I had to deal with a District representative, I had little to no say in what I could do being located on a District Road some years ago.
    They drew up plans for curbs and restrictions to be installed (at my cost) at the edge of my parking lot in the west end. After a nose – to – nose ‘chat’ with Tony the District Engineer, I refused to comply. Nothing happened.
    Some time later, I was told (unofficially) my arguments made more sense than the District’s did due to the proximity to a slight curve in the road and cars exiting my lot needing some ‘elbow room’ to maneuver for safety.
    Keep the departments local is what I’m saying.
    More and more I feel like we are sliding into the days of olde. The castle on the hill, and the peasants down below sending the money up to the top.

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