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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