Listen Up! Next crop of District councillors must be prepared to cut their numbers

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Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

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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9 Comments

  1. The only candidate who has spoken up for change is Gord Adams who has the best negotiating skills to tackle this issue and the guts to take it on. He would have to run for District Chair to accomplish this and once there we, who know him well, know that he would bring everybody together to bring reform to district government in Muskoka.

    • For the record, Sylvia, I have spoken numerous times on the need for change throughout the past term of District Council and on several occasions during that time, I have brought forward motions calling for action on the issue of a review – all were defeated. At the most recent Bracebridge All Candidates Debate, I indicated I would support cutting the current size of District Council by half and renewed my support for a long overdue review of municipal government in Muskoka. As Hugh has indicated, if we don’t move forward with an adequate made-in-Muskoka solution, the province will make one for us.

  2. Sorry Hugh, then problem is not the council, it’s the buraucrats and administration of the municipalities…why have 7 roads departments, fire Dept….get rid of the OPP and bite the bullet and form a district police Dept….area planning districts and committees, like Toronto would be great…Muskoka is too provincial…Huntsville vs Bracebridge vs Gravenhurst…all of the aforementioned vs the cottage townships.
    .it can be done and work.

    Cheers..Rob Purves

  3. The real reason why the size of Government at all levels needs to be addressed sadly is cost. The District is a perfect example of how not to offer services to an area in a cost effective manner. The District still has not decommissioned our sewage treatment plant after 25 years. Despite the negative impact on our environment every time we get excessive precipitation. How many councillors does it take to decommission and antiquated sewage treatment plant? Excessive taxation is destroying the nation.

  4. Karen Wehrstein on

    I’m all for improving government efficiency by eliminating redundancies and coming up with superior procedures, but I always worry when the hatchetmen come around cutting. How many people who are needful of help will suffer and how much? These changes should be made using a public consultation system that includes a totally transparent presentation of the full set of facts about what programs will be eliminated or downsized, and who will be affected by their elimination, in what ways and how much. A good community takes care of its own, and social programs are exactly that, because municipalities and provinces are just big communities.
    .
    Point of order, Hugh — when you say Muskoka has twice as many councillors as Toronto, do you mean compared to Toronto’s number before or after Ford’s slashing?

  5. One size does not fit all. The geography and topography of Muskoka are unique and dictate the need for a unique governance model. Norfolk and Toronto roads form a convenient grid system that is simply not possible with the large lakes to drive around in Muskoka. That makes traveling to any centralized service much more time consuming for citizens and staff in Muskoka. That is why there are 3 police stations, 6 fires stations, 15 banks, 8 LCBO stores and 2 hospitals in Muskoka. The One Muskoka model would clearly not suit the unique needs of the towns and townships of Muskoka any better than one fire station or one LCBO. A smaller but still very important regional local staff and more local services like roads would be a much better fit for Muskoka.

  6. I am very glad to see that almost everyone is now, at the very least, saying the words. However, we need District Councillors who can (and I hate to use the trite expression) think outside the box. I have been lobbying for dramatic downsizing at District for close to 8 years and nobody was interested in listening. Like them or hate them, this Provincial Government has certainly sent a “wake-up” call. Additionally, we need too not just cut the size of Council, we need to change the way District works. We need to eliminate the committee system where decisions are made by the few and move serious discussion to a Committee of a Whole whose recommendations would then by ratified by Council.

    Let’s target reduction to 12 Councillors, two from each Municipality – the Mayor and Deputy Mayor – both of whom would be elected at large in their respective communities. This is a widely used County model.

  7. Should run for Mayor Bob. Lol. You’re actually concerned about the high tax paying public. Good luck to you in the Election.

  8. Hugh I totally agree with your comments, and I can tell you change is finally going to happen to our Regional Government system in Ontario that is in most areas over 48 years old. It probably was the correct system at the time in the early 1970’s for governance, however the Province the Municipalities have evolved since the 1970’s and the governance at both the upper tier and lower tier have expanded greatly in knowledge, expertise, and unfortunately in employees and cost to the taxpayers. We need to reduce the functions of the Upper Tier District government , ie roads and all planning to the local Towns and Townships, get rid of the district staff holding up new developments. The number of councilors should be cut at both levels. The district should be a service Board for issues that affect the local Towns and Townships. And perhaps the number of lower tier Municipalities should also be cut and/or sharing of services be more utilized, i.e. right now Huntsville/Lake of Bays share a number of services. This could be expanded. Bracebridge & Gravenhurst could also be encouraged to share services and staff and perhaps Muskoka Lakes and Georgian Bay should be encouraged to do the same. The cost of councilors in Muskoka is not a major issue as it is in the Toronto area. The Toronto councilors have large budgets and, on average, cost the taxpayer over $500,000 per year per councilor. We do not have that issue here in Muskoka, however our major problem is duplication and the fact that the District government bureaucracy has grown tremendously over the past number of years. In my business, I travel all over Muskoka and talk to many individuals from Dwight and Dorset to Bala and Port Carling and even over to Mactier. This area is too large for one central District government that has been proposed by One Muskoka, and even by former District Chair Gord Adams. The idea of Regional Government was for joint services, however very few of our roads connect the Municipalities directly and we will never see Municipal Water & Sewer plants servicing more than one Municipality. The reason we have Water & Sewer plants in some of the smaller communities, i.e. Baysville, Port Severn and Mactier is the fact that the 3 towns are picking up the operational costs for these plants that should never have been built and, by the way, all have been built at a cost of at least double the original estimate. Bottom line, we have to realize that the governance the way we know it in Muskoka is going to change and perhaps the elected politicians will finally realize this and do something to streamline and cut the number of employees and councilors very early in the next term of council, or the Province will as per Toronto, make changes for the Regional/District government of Muskoka. It is quite positive as it appears more of the candidates agree with the reduction of responsibility and services of the upper tier Municipality, the District of Muskoka, as it appears to be out of control and not responsive to the taxpayers they represent.

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