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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