Listen Up! Should we be worried about the rise of special interest groups in Muskoka?

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This week’s Listen Up! is by guest contributor Bob Young, former mayor of Lake of Bays Township.

In Muskoka, Special Interest Groups (SIGs) have been around for many decades, especially in the townships. Most commonly we know them as Residents Associations, Lake Associations or sometimes narrowly focused groups on a single issue, such as Langmaid’s Island in the Township of Lake of Bays (Love of Langmaid’s Island). For the most part, these SIGs serve a very useful purpose. They share information with their members, they attend council meetings, occasionally expressing the views of their Directors, they provide a social focus, and often a membership directory (in some people’s minds the most important function).

However, during the election of October 2018, all of that changed. They suddenly became much more politically active and, in the end, had a significant impact on the outcome of the Township elections. For me, the key questions are:

  • Have these SIGs exceeded the delegated authority of their members?
  • Have these SIGs clearly identified their biases to their membership?
  • Has democracy benefited or has it been compromised?

As a life-long member of the Muskoka area – Huntsville until the 1950s and then Lake of Bays from then on, culminating in Mayor of Lake of Bays Township from December 1, 2010 until November 30, 2018, I am very concerned with the rise of the political power of these SIGs and deeply concerned that many residents are being swayed by their rhetoric, only to find themselves unrepresented for a four-year term. Let me be clear, nothing illegal was done – perhaps unethical or abusive of the “system” – but, unfortunately, legal.

So, what happened during the 2018 election? In the Lake of Bays township, the Lake of Bays Association (LOBA) and the For the Love of Langmaid’s Community Group lobbied residents on the evils of the proposed Langmaid’s Island Development and, in my opinion, swayed the electorate into a panicked, and ill-informed decision on which candidates to support in the election. The residents had not even had the benefit of a Township staff review of the proposal or the usual negotiation between developer and Staff to try to achieve the “best” solution. The residents (especially those in the southwest quadrant of the Lake of Bays) voted in a slate of candidates vehemently anti-Langmaid’s Island Development and, I believe, anti-development in general. However, these electors represent less than 20 per cent of the total electoral pool. For the next four years, who is going to represent the interests of the other 80 per cent of the Township? As well, even before the new Council took office, the developer filed a “non decision” appeal on the development proposal to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), the successor to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). This means that the decision has, effectively, been taken away from the Township and its council and placed in the hands of the Tribunal – how terribly ironic!

Elsewhere, in the Muskoka townships, a dramatic election outcome was seen in the Township of Muskoka Lakes. A group calling itself “Friends of Muskoka” populated by cottagers in the Minett area and by the many members of the Muskoka Lakes Association (MLA) took a very active role in the election. They even went so far as to register as third party advertisers. With this legal status they published and promoted a list of candidates from mayor to local councillors strongly encouraging voters to choose those candidates “who think like us”! What a horrible thought – electing a group of robots. Guess what? They were 100 per cent successful. Every one of their suggested candidates was elected. The SIGs focuses were narrow – Save the Bala Falls believed and still believes they can stop the development (it will be completed in 2019). The Friends of Muskoka and the MLA want to stop all resort development with a focus on the Minett Resort Village, which had been approved by the OMB ten years ago. What concerns me, from a democratic point of view, are the many other pressing issues facing the larger Township of Muskoka Lakes. What about the people on the other lakes and in the smaller villages? Who will look after their issues? The Friends of Muskoka and the MLA appear to have little interest in anything other than the Minett resort issue and stopping all development.

Finally, in the Township of Georgian Bay, a SIG known as Georgina Bay Proud was heavily involved in the outcome of the election. This SIG promoted the interest of the seasonal residents over those of the permanent residents and was instrumental in swaying the outcome of the election, certainly in the mayoral vote. Now they have an administration which believes that the seasonal residents are getting a “raw” deal compared to the permanent residents. This is an “old chestnut” which has plagued relationships for years, certainly in my Township of Lake of Bays. However, in the case of Lake of Bays, with good administrations, education and common sense, the “two solitudes” have come together and realize that neither can exist without the other and that having a solid, sound, permanent base in the township is an advantage for all. So, once again, for Georgian Bay, I ask, who will look after all of the other unrepresented voters?

Returning to the three questions posed at the outset, I truly believe that the Directors of the SIGs do exceed the mandate of their members partly because many members are truly not that interested or involved in local politics and partly because there is only one or possibly two public meetings where the membership is directly involved with their Board. One example I can refer to is a decision the Board of the Lake of Bays Association (LOBA) made to appeal a decision of the Township Council on a revision to the Official Plan. The appeal ended up costing the Association $80,000 and was considered (in my opinion) trivial by the OMB Chair. Many members approached me after the Hearing, aghast and angry about that LOBA Board decision. However, the problem I believe is related to the second question about a Board identifying its biases. I am concerned that the SIGs do not communicate completely and openly with their membership so that the membership can fully understand the implications of Board decisions. I fully recognize that the Boards have an immense challenge – climbing the mountain of apathy. Many, many seasonal residents come up to enjoy their summer time at the cottage and leave the angst of politics and worries behind – as they should. It is only after the fact when they read about decisions, which have been made, do they get involved. In this recent election, LOBA and the Langmaid’s group inferred to the public that if they made certain electoral decisions, the Langmaid’s issue would disappear. They also misled the public into believing that the election was a referendum. As the public has come to realize, neither was true.

Finally, the most important question – has democracy been compromised by the rise of the SIGs. In my opinion, the answer is yes! Great effort goes into trying to ensure that all residents are equally represented by their councillors and mayor. However, when a SIG takes on a single issue and/or a dominant position in the electoral process, then significant proportions of the population will end up being ignored during the tenancy of that council. Also, and quite worrying to me, the council will be beholden to and overly influenced by the SIG in their day-to-day decision making. This is not democracy.

In conclusion, Should we be worried about the rise of special interest groups in Muskoka? – YES!

Post Script – food for thought for another day – think of the cost in Township staff hours, legal expenses and real tax cost to the residents to respond to the actions of these SIGs.

Bob Young is the former eight-year Mayor of Lake of Bays Township who had a 40 year career in senior management roles in the oil industry.

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16 Comments

  1. Dear Mr Young,
    It is interesting to read your take on the election and the results . You appear to be assigning blame and that of course has me interested. I think the people of Muskoka got woken up a little to the fact that politics is power . The people of Huntsville and Lake of Bays have realized that our ecology is under threat from over development and if we do not organize and effectively resist we will lose our ability to have a healthy ecology. I am sure you heard the message from all of us that our ecology is our economy. I was very informed about development in across the Muskoka Watershed that connects us and engaged on the planning for Landmaids island and others since it plans to use Huntsville jurisdiction lands for waterfront parking . I would suggest you were not elected because there was an informed and interested public asking questions . Lakes Association have been the consistent voice for watershed health and use and so I want to thank them their efforts to actually and honestly challenge all of the candidates including myself . If you really think people were misinformed give us the details and lets have a conversation . You appear to be feeling scorned and the language you use is quite disrespectful of the volunteers who worked to protect these lands and waters …The media might also like to comment about your choice of words so I hope this conversation continues.

  2. Peggy,

    Thank you for your comments. Quite simply, I was not writing about or moaning about why I was not elected ( the people have spoken and I accept that). I was writing about the phenomenon in all three Townships whereby a vocal lobby group rallied a concentrated group of voters based on one or two issues and biased the outcome of the election – candidates showed little interest in the other other important issues facing each Township and voters in the other parts of their Townships. For example, in the Lake of Bays, LOBA represents waterfront property owners in the southern quadrant of the Lake – less than 20% of the electorate of the Lake.

    You ask for examples of “misinformation”. Two examples I have direct knowledge of in the Lake of Bays are that people were told that this election was a referendum when. of course, it was not, and they were told that if I was not elected, Langmaid’s Island would “go away”. Clearly that is false.

    • Dear Mayor Young,

      Indeed the LOBA and the “For the Love of Langmaid’s Community group” were mobilized on a development issue central and critical to the quality of life for residents directly and indirectly impacted by an aggressive and unwieldy development plan that to all appearances was motivated solely for the purpose of Langmaids Island Corp. making money.

      This is not a subtle or discreet project that would have little impact on the greater community; this project is akin to building a skyscraper in the middle of the town of Lake of Bays. The general public’s safety and the environment (aside from the natural beauty of the habitat) would be forever impacted.

      Your silence on the most controversial “Special Interest Group” in this situation; Langmaids Island Corp. , is greatly troubling.

      It is perhaps this vitriolic position and the clear disregard of your constituents wishes the reason that you are no longer sitting in the Mayors chair.

  3. What the Former Mayor Young found out the hard way is that if you don’t listen to your constituents and properly represent them then they will do their best to represent themselves.

    In regards to the Langmaid’s Island development there was an open house that was fully attended with standing room only. The message from almost everyone in attendance was that they did not want the development to proceed. A clear message was sent to the Major, the District and the Councillors.

    The Community did not feel that the Mayor had properly represented their interests and was of the opinion that the Mayor was supporting development over the preservation of the Island and ignoring the interests of the Local Community.

    Without a political voice the Community rallied together in solidarity.
    Bob makes reference to the “For the Love of Langmaid’s” Community group. This was a group of people that got together and exchanged ideas. There was no board of directors or secret agendas and everyone shared similar opinions. It was a fantastic way to share information.

    With hundreds of pages of submissions from the Development Corp to go through it was an impossible task for any single individual. The Community rallied together and tore through the submissions noting numerous errors and omissions that a single individual would never have been able to catalogue.
    When the errors or omissions were discovered they were shared with all members of the group. No one in the group was coerced into voting one way or another. They voted as per the information that everyone found and shared.

    What LOBA and the other associations did was to ensure that voters got out to vote.
    Bob says that these people only represent 20% of the electoral pool. If that is true then where were the other 80%?

    Bob still insists that the decision has been taken away from the Township. This is just fear mongering because it is not true.

    Should we be worried about the rise of special interest groups? Maybe yes, maybe no.
    Without Special Interest Groups and community involvement what alternatives do we have when politicians give more credibility to development corporations than Local community? How do we protect and preserve our Community’s where we have a vested interest.

    If community’s were properly represented in the first place then there would be no need for Special Interest Groups.

  4. Question- aren’t the Langmaids Development Corp, the Minet Village Resort, and the Swift River Energy groups also SIG’s?

  5. This seems to be a rather tepid, day-to-day, “tempest in a teapot”, regular occurrence at all levels of government. At the federal and provincial levels, the SIG’s are called lobby groups; as paid lobbyists attempt to direct various government decisions. One step above them, IMHO, are the NGO’s: In their case, the government controls them by dictating their tax status; thereby weakening their perceived enemies, e.g. Maude Barlow, while allowing their perceived friends to occupy a preferred position.
    .
    As always, it falls to any candidate with differing views to point out both their own, and those of the particular opposition group.

  6. Thank you to those who took the time to read the piece and comment. Unfortunately, the editor used a photo of Langmaid’s Island at the top of the piece and almost all comments relate to that single issue and not to the issues of democracy across the Townships. Also, many took this as a personal lament of not being re-elected which is was not. Finally, anyone who asks whether the development groups are SIGS or not clearly misses the point completely – the problem I am discussing is the focus on a single issue, not the good of the WHOLE Municipal body.

    • I take your point that SIG’s are essentially anti-democratic where as holistic approaches to the needs of the entire community have a monopoliy on democracy. As an abstract political theory it is interesting but practically speaking it plays out quite differently.

      The essential local dichotomy for all taxpayer-entities funded by real estate, that is to say every single Canadian municipality, is that we must develop property to maintain our taxbase to build and service our infrastructure. On the other hand we must preserve our ecology to encourage people to visit or live in the municipality in the first place.

      Single interest groups which vanguard the election of politicians who best reflect an ability to balance the needs of these apparently competing interests, far from being anti-democratic, are an essential cog in our ability to reconcile competing interests within the framework of our laws and rules. The alternative is to seek to overturn governments a la central America.

      Taxpayers and voters north of the 49th have had 150 years to learn how to balance competing political interests. We have learned the best way to get it right is to make certain minority views are respected by the process without dominating it (your point) but at the same time government policy creation is tautologically most democratically created bottom-up rather than top-down.

      The only way you create bottom-up or consensual politics is by groups of likeminded people pushing single issues which at the end of the day are found to be in the interests of the entire community. Almost all labor-practice legislation was created in this manner and everything of value ever created by towns and townships is driven by taxpayer need and perception. Any attempt to fetter this is, in and of itself, not only anti-democratic it is mob rule which these days south of the 49th is simply called “Executive power” eminating from the White House.

      And much to the claimed puzzlement of those in favor of it almost inevitably represents a minority or special interest usually centrist and capital-funded rather than based on community need.

    • Bob,

      It’s really quite simple; if you don’t align with the interests of the voters you represent, you don’t win elections.

      You can try and justify your loss in any form you wish, while demonizing the free will of voters, but isn’t it really just crying over spilled milk?

  7. Bob ….well written and unfortunately several respondents focused only on the LOB development issue. As a member of the Lake Waseosa Ratepayers Association, we are facing a similar issue.
    Development across Muskoka and throughout Ontario often positions NIMBY’s against developers. The majority of developers want to maximize the size of their development while many residents (NIMBY’s) want no change.
    The best way to handle these situations is for the local government to have a sound long-term development plan that clearly defines how future applications are dealt with.
    If a development is respectful of the environment, their neighbours and does not affect the look and feel of the neighbourhood, there is no reason why it should be denied. On the other hand, if the development is in conflict with the long-term development plan, puts unnecessary stress on water quality and disturbs the neighbourhood, then they need to go back to the drawing board.
    This is the Town Councils job to be prepared for these situations. If they have a clear development plan, their course of action is simple. When there is no prior process in place it becomes political and politicians open themselves up to lobbying from both sides.
    In the case of Lake Waseosa, no decision was made by Council as they told the applicants to meet with the Ratepayers association to find a workable solution. This was a total cop out by council. Had they implemented the requested development plan over the past 10 years the answer would have been simple. Now in typical political fashion, the politicians try to appease both sides and in my opinion that is political suicide. When you compromise vs making a tough decision, you piss off both sides and everyone is unhappy. By making a well thought out and supported decision one way or the other it demonstrates to the voters that you are capable leaders, not just mediators.

    • Kelly Zytaruk on

      Hi Gregory,

      I want to circle back to the LOB issue for just a moment although I do recognize that this is a larger issue.

      The LOB issue is not one of NIMBY. There is a long term plan in place and it is to protect and preserve the area targeted by the developer.

      The recommendation from the Town Planner to Council was to deny the application for development as it did not align with the long term direction in the Official Plan.

      The previous Mayor failed to show any support for the Community or any respect towards the Official Plan.

  8. So crucify this viewpoint maybe if you like but in general it has always seemed a bit unfair that the “permanent” residents, the ones with their “primary” residence in the municipality are vastly outnumbered by the “temporary” residents.
    The general question I would ask is “should a person get a vote in every municipality where they own a piece of property? Or should they get a vote in the municipality where their “principal residence” is located???
    There is an issue here in that the cottagers outnumber and thus can outvote the local permanent population. Thus they can (at least in theory) control the details of their recreational area to best suite their ideas of what a recreational ares should be. The people who live here year round and make their living here can potentially be quite simply shut out by this system and thus ignored. This is not right or good.

    It is not that bad at the moment, but potentially it could be that a particular municipality could be completely controlled by and for the benefit of the recreational users only. Then what?
    It is the permanent residents who form the basis for a community. They tend to be the volunteers, be they firefighters, or service clubs and the like.

    From a financial point of view the cottage owners live on the most desirable real estate and pay a very high price to do so. They represent, generally the very top of the earnings demographic and as such can afford the inflated real estate costs and taxes that go with them. A local worker cannot. It is effectively impossible for a lot of local workers to even contemplate ownership of waterfront now and this will only become worse in the future. We need to ask if this is what we want?

    Is there a solution? Maybe people only get to vote where their “principal residence” is located? This would not be totally fair either though.

    In an ideal world we would all live and work together but the reality is that a multi millionaire, with a “cottage” approaching the size of a small mall, with waterfront facilities larger than any commercial operation on the lake, is just simply not in the same class of person as a guy who does carpentry and plows driveways for a living. Again one must ask if this is good for the community.

    This discussion may go on for a while. It needs a lot of thought.

    • Quoting comments by your correspondent in another letter he wrote, this one on municipal bylaws governing certain classes of enterprises: “I am struck by the fact that Canada is supposed to be a bastion of capitalistic free enterprise.” https://www.muskokaregion.com/news-story/3621293-critics-bash-licence-bylaw/

      To the extent that Canada is a bastion of free enterprise that bastion is manned by legislation designed to protect the least able to self-care citizen.

      Your correspondent doesn’t quite go so far as to suggest that cottage owners who have a residence elsewhere should be denied an ability to vote in municipal elections where their cottage is but he is certainly asking us to consider it.

      Municipalities have a rather limited function under our constitution. They are creatures of the provincial government under the Municipal Act (except for Toronto). They cannot enter into debt past one year and the rules they make must not infringe on the jurisdiction of the senior levels of government.

      Basically this means municipalities can deal with raising or lowering mill rates and the administration of certain services paid for out of the local rates or taxes.

      In Muskoka we have gone to quite extraordinary lengths to allow for subdivision of our waterfront to allow recreational and cottage development and we have been so successful that the taxes derived from these MPAC-assessed properties fund much of the infrastructure for the rest of us despite the fact that services offered directly to the cottages may be limited to water and sewer sometimes and policing.

      His suggestion that the folks who pay these assessments should be deprived of or limited in, an ability to vote on people who determine how they are raised and spent seems to fly in the face of your correspondent’s “bastion of capitalistic free enterprise” theory.

  9. When folks do not feel that our Politicians are listening to our local citizens then folks have every right to express their dissatisfaction. Our Mary Lake association has concerns as well.
    Politicians have to represent all of us and not always what their personal beliefs are.

  10. Your apparent annoyance with SIGs getting in the way of disturbingly ambitious development proposals reminds me of former Premier of British Columbia Glen Clark describing those protesting the planned logging of the Great Bear Rainforest as “the enemies of B.C.” The last Premier of B.C., another Clark, referred to them as “the forces of no'”.
    Could that four decade career in senior management roles in the oil industry have tilted your sentiments toward that of unbridled “capitalistic free enterprise”?

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