Listen Up! Hope for District reform is not lost with Ford’s last-minute decision

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Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

Hello! It’s me again. Back a lot earlier than I expected, and all because a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. Literally. My wife Anne and I were well on our way with friends for a quick visit to the Stratford Festival when Premier Doug Ford dropped his last-minute bombshell that will affect municipal elections in many parts of Ontario, including Muskoka. In the twinkling of an eye I went from launching one of the largest municipal campaigns in the history of Muskoka, to wrapping the whole thing up and putting it in mothballs.

My first reaction was deep disappointment. I was primed to go. Initially, as many of you will remember, I was opposed to the election at-large of the District Chair in Muskoka as, in my view, it would create a Super Mayor. However, when it became fact and my friend Gord Adams decided to run for District Chair, with a platform to eliminate all the lower-tier municipalities and have a single-governance structure for all of Muskoka, something I oppose for a myriad of reasons, I saw it as a golden opportunity to present an option for real municipal reform that was closer to the people, rather than further away.

Ironically, I wanted to do many of the things that Premier Ford has espoused. I wanted to cut the number of municipal councillors at least in half. I wanted to take a sharp knife to the fat and duplication at the District Government level and I wanted to return services such as roads and planning to local municipalities where the needs and priorities of their people are best known and where politicians can be held most accountable. I wanted to make municipal governance in Muskoka more effective, more efficient and more accountable. To achieve this, I believed I needed a mandate well beyond that of 22 District Councillors, some of whom, at least at this point in time, are more than comfortable with the status quo. I continue to believe that.

And so when a reporter asked me yesterday, hours after the Ford announcement, if I would still seek the District Chair under the old system where he or she would be appointed by members of the District Council, I said no. I have been there and know how that works. Under the current system I could not win and even if I did I would have no mandate for change.

I am sure that John Klinck, the current District Chair, in spite of his crocodile tears at the cancellation of the election of the Muskoka Chair at-large, is chortling in his beer knowing that he now only has to get twelve votes to keep him in his comfortable office for another four years. And he is good at that. I have little doubt that he has already contacted candidates who have filed for District Council, offered his support and even offered to facilitate contact with District staff.  He is pro at that. But at the end of the day, it will be the same old, same old. Anything to make councillors feel comfortable and secure. Back to the status quo.

Well, that was yesterday and today I am looking at things slightly differently, thanks to a number of emails and telephone calls and, in particular, to a chat with an old friend, an enlightened municipal politician, who pointed out the silver lining in Premier Ford’s announcement.

The silver lining is this: when it comes to municipal governance, Doug Ford is not a fan of the status quo. He has thrown down the gauntlet in a dramatic, Ford-like way, by suddenly cutting the number of councillors in Toronto by half and postponing the election at-large of Regional/District Chairs who are currently appointed until his government has reviewed Regional and District government in Ontario. Like him or hate him, he is the Premier of Ontario and he has served notice that change is coming.

With municipal election campaigns now underway, candidates for election to District Council have an opportunity to demonstrate whether they will embrace real change or wait until it is thrust upon them. Voters on the other hand, will be able to demand change from a bureaucratic nightmare of almost 600 employees and a District budget of more than $160 million.

There are 22 seats up for election to the Muskoka District Council. Only two of them, one in Gravenhurst and one in Lake of Bays have been filled by acclamation, leaving 39 candidates to fill the remaining 20 seats. To this end, the municipal election period can become an effective forum to debate real change in how Muskoka is governed. One can be sure that Premier Ford will be watching.  After all, he has a cottage in Huntsville and he actually has a vote! He will surely not think that Muskoka should have twice as many elected councillors as Toronto and he will certainly want to see a more compact and efficient delivery of public services that is as close to the people who receive them as possible. And remember, he can change things with the flick of his wrist.

There is, therefore, a real opportunity to alter the balance of power on District Council to a commitment for real change and for genuine reform of municipal governance. To accomplish that, all we need to do is to elect the right councillors who will be strong advocates for reform; people who want to lead the changes and not have them made for them.

If we can make that happen, then it may be a new ball game when it comes to choosing the next Chair of Muskoka. John Klinck, after eight years in that office, has clearly demonstrated that he is not an effective agent of change. With a strong reform-minded Council, he may not have the support he needs to serve another term. That would provide an opportunity for new and enlightened leadership for real change at the District level. After all, one need only count to 12.

Something to think hard about.

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15 Comments

  1. Hugh, you are back, but where will you land?The big table at district council needs a negotiator like you.
    Attention all candidates for Muskoka District Council….. where do you stand?

  2. The last two elections the voters of Huntsville have rejected Hugh as mayor.
    Why would they want him appointed as district chair?

  3. Hugh,

    Was certainly looking forward to your candidacy. Change – significant change – is needed at the District. 22 Councillors sitting around a large table are totally ineffective. We need to model the concepts of Counties (like Halliburton) where there are 2 Councillors per Municipality and the Chair (or Warden as the position is known) is appointed from the elected officials for a 1 years term. We need to reduce the duplication of effort in Planning and Roads. We need to download responsibility for critical services to the lower tiers.

    This will take bold leadership and a bold NEW set of Councillors. If most of the current Councillors get returned – what a pity that would be.

  4. John K. Davis on

    Hugh Mackenzie and Robert Hurst thank you for your opinions on Premier Doug Ford’s changes to Regional/District governments. Well presented on your respective parts.
    I am in the camp that thinks Regional/District Councillors with the exception of “The City of Kawartha Lakes” who cut their number of elected representatives in half starting this fall, would never reduce their size. Many have claimed they would reduce their size when running for these Councils but once elected nothing changed. Our District has continued to build the empire and the size of their budgets with seemingly fewer positive results. This level of government first introduced to Ontario in 1969 is certainly in need of review. Premier Ford has said that is why he has put a hold on changes set to go into play this year. I agree there is no time like the present.
    I also agree with Hugh that this gives the electorate in Muskoka and elsewhere a great opportunity for discussion about not just regional/District Governance but Ward representation as well, something I tried to affect when I was on Council. Vote for those representatives to Town and District Council who are willing to affect positive change, reduce replication, streamline planning and be proactive not reactive to increasing efficiencies and lessening waste at all levels of Municipal Government.

  5. Hi Hugh:

    Here is my statement published in my press release (sent to Doppler) of July 10 on this matter:

    “I oppose the ‘One Muskoka’ movement touted by one the candidates for District Chair. I would rather see that the Huntsville government structure becomes more robust rather than the District government model as is. The District model doesn’t work that well for Huntsville anymore. I support a full analysis of our governance to make necessary changes to better serve our taxpayers.”

    As a ‘new’ candidate for a District Council seat, working on changes to this governance structure sits in second place to my pledge to maintain a full serviced 24/7 acute care hospital here in Huntsville.

  6. How about all the Mayors and one additional Councillor from each Municipality as appointed or elected by Councillors….If appointed could actually be changed throughout the 4 year term…Anything to reduce the number of politicians at that level !

  7. Firstly I would like to say that it is disappointing that the premier, with a flick of the wrist, has taken out a few good candidates for the role of Chair. Did not think you would role over Hugh! glad to see you are still in the game so to speak.
    Mr. Beatty’s assertion that the district council should consist of only the mayor and one councillor is a good one but why not just pare it back even further and have only the mayors and the chair running the district? Would make for quick and easy work of the backlog and everyone will get what they want when it comes to roads, sewers etc. just a suggestion!

    • Mike there are 3 District seats for Huntsville to be contested.v Reduce it to One…Only elected…This decision, Chair, directed at the upcoming election. There was no direction on elected Council Members and change to reduce number of Council Members Municipally or District would affect following election…..Needs to happen !

  8. Hugh, I find it interesting that everything your commentators seem to want from local government, lower unit costs, service available locally, more efficiency, clearer accountability , more control on tax increases, fewer councillors, you name it, is possible.

    Just won’t happen with either status quo or your suggestion that we go back 50 years.

    Every unbiased review of Muskoka Governance, and there has been at least three, has made it very clear, that the delivery of public services by multiple delivery agents will always be more expensive and less efficient.

    They have also always shown methods by which those same services could be delivered locally in a single governance model.

    To suggest we need another comprehensive governance structure review, in hopes that we get a different result, is wishful thinking at best.

    It just so happens, as you are aware, The District of Muskoka has lower administration costs, as a percentage of budget, than any area municipality, and always has had.

    As we go forward, let’s have more facts, less rhetoric.

  9. Josephine McClelland on

    I think less council for larger towns and more for small areas like Lake of Bays which is larger in area. I don’t agree with roads being returned to lower level as our roads would be more costly and also more ill kept as it is they are only plowed once a day now what on earth would it be if they had them all. I see nothing wrong with John Klink and also sometimes status quo is not all bad if the changes made are only going to cost more or mean less taken care of sometimes cutting costs just mean more money for those in power to waste or raise their pays etc. does not always mean great things to us tax payers. John Klink is a good person or else those who put him in before don’t know what they are doing and obviously they must know what they are doing or they would not have been put in by us the voters……………

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