Why wait for the hammer?
Change is coming to municipal politics in Muskoka; real change. There’s no doubt about it. Unlike the City of Toronto, we will not see it in this current municipal election cycle but it is coming and the people we elect less than a month from now can either lead that change or simply wait until it is forced upon them. Premier Doug Ford has made it crystal clear that he intends to decrease the size of governance and increase efficiency at all political levels in Ontario. He is particularly focused on areas like Muskoka where Regional or District Municipalities exist. He has already said they would be subject to an early review. To know that he means what he says and that he will take any steps necessary to accomplish his goals, one need only look as far south as Toronto.
It is in that context, therefore, that this current municipal election cycle in Huntsville and Muskoka is of more importance than some others that have preceded it. The people who we elect at both the local and District levels of government on October 22nd will become inexorably caught up in the process for meaningful change. It should be of significant interest to voters to know which candidates are prepared to work for a made-in-Muskoka model for real and effective change to our municipal structures. One thing is for sure: the status quo will not survive another full term of council.
As most people are aware, Muskoka is totally over-governed. We are one of the smaller municipalities in Ontario and yet we have more than twice the number of councillors as Toronto, the largest city in Canada, will have. You can bet your booties that is going to change!
There are some who argue that the best model for governance change in Muskoka is one which would eliminate the six lower-tier municipalities in favour of a single-municipal tier for the entire District. It would effectively mirror the existing Muskoka District council and in my view, would be a disaster. Our current District government in Muskoka is too fat, too remote and too unaccountable with a staggering budget of more than $164 million each and every year. Single-tier governance would only make that worse.
In watching some of the candidate forums that have taken place in the past week or so, it was of some comfort to note there was virtually no support for a single upper tier form of governance for Muskoka. Some seemed content with the status quo while others spoke of change, especially at the District level.
The main problem with District government is that too many District councillors are content with the status quo. Too many, although certainly not all, are happy with the way things are now, especially with their double stipends. It has been obvious for at least the past decade that we have far too many District councillors who oversee an ever-growing bureaucracy that is focused on expanding District responsibilities and power well beyond what was ever contemplated when District government in Muskoka was created.
Yet with all the discussions and debates that have taken place, little has really changed, because there is no real will for major change and no real leadership to make it happen. District councillors cannot even agree on how many of them should be around that table. It seems clear that if real change is to take place at the District level in Muskoka without external intervention, we will need to see a copious amount of new blood there when the new council is elected.
In answering a question at one of the recent candidate forums concerning how to attract more jobs to Muskoka, Bracebridge mayor Graydon Smith pointed out that a major problem was the lack of housing. Many others, including Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison have said the same thing. One of the reasons for a housing shortage in my view, is that too many developers are tied up with red tape and bureaucratic delays and demands at the District level. I know of one developer of a very small subdivision who has waited over two years for a final agreement from the District in relation to installing natural gas lines. This would not have happened if decisions were made at the local level. There are many other services related to roads, planning and development that are currently handled by the District that could be more effectively and efficiently delivered at the local level.
There are some good people on District council. But there are not enough of them to bring about real change. During this election campaign we need to hear from all candidates for District council, from across Muskoka; those who are there now and those who want to go there. Real change in governance at the District level that works for Muskoka and the area municipalities, can come from within. But it can only happen if enough people who believe in it can get to the table. Otherwise, we can just wait for the hammer to fall and we all know who wields that hammer.
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