Contributed by Muskoka District Councillor Don Smith
Into only the first year of its four-year term, Muskoka District Council has hit a watershed moment. At its most recent meeting, district councillors voted to nibble at real change, rather than embracing the need for major reform of municipal governance in Muskoka.
By supporting a resolution brought forward by Lake of Bays Mayor Bob Young, district councillors directed staff to “investigate… initiating a change to the composition of Muskoka District Council.”
Mayor Young claimed his municipality has been under-represented at the District Council table and, as a result, some injustice has been visited on the voters of his community. His argument focused on the increased assessment enjoyed by the Townships of Lake of Bays and Georgian Bay, the resultant portion they pay of the district levy and their perceived lack of representation.
However, Mayor Young failed to recognize our form of democracy is not based on who brings the most money to the table or, as he argued, a more or less equal amount of money to the table. Rather, our politicians are normally elected on the basis of representation by population. While allowances are made for pre-existing circumstances, geography and fair representation, there is a general expectation in the community that one vote should be equal to another.
A look at the eligible voters in the most recent municipal elections would suggest Mayor Young’s municipality is not only well-represented at the district council table but it has more representation than it’s entitled to have. The same applies to Georgian Bay Township.
How, one might ask, can this be?
It’s quite simple. According to a report prepared by municipal clerks following the most recent municipal election in 2014, there was a total of 80,126 eligible voters in Muskoka’s six area municipalities. Interestingly, that total was split almost evenly between residents (40,012) and non-residents (40,114).
Of that number, Lake of Bays Township had a total of 7,963 voters (2,200 resident/5,763 non-resident). That’s equal to less than 10 per cent of the total Muskoka voters. Proportioned, based on the current number of District Councillors, that would mean Lake of Bays Township would see its seat count drop from three to two. The Township of Georgian Bay with 9,014 eligible voters (1,823 resident/7,191 non-resident) is in a similar situation.
In short, an early analysis would seem to show that Mayor Young would appear to lose representation from his actions, rather than make any gains. However, based on the same math, Huntsville and Muskoka Lakes would see their district representation grow by one councillor each while Bracebridge and Gravenhurst would remain unchanged.
On one point, Mayor Young and I agree. In total, we have too many councillors in Muskoka. Mayor Young has suggested there could be an argument made for halving district council. That would mean both his township and Georgian Bay Township would, on a proportionate basis, be entitled to just one seat each.
So, what’s the answer?
District council should not be asking staff to prepare a report that serves only to provide information on the obvious. Rather, district councillors need to deal with the reality that we have too many councillors and too much local government. How can we justify 52 municipal politicians in Muskoka when the City of Toronto manages with just 44 councillors and a mayor? Why do we need two levels of government when Toronto can get by with one? How long can Muskoka ratepayers continue to fund seven administrations and all the related costs of governance?
We are working with a governance model that is out-of-date and long overdue for an overhaul.
At the last District Council meeting, a motion calling on councillors to have a more fulsome debate on these issues and other matters of municipal restructuring in Muskoka was defeated.
It’s been 45 years since the current Muskoka governance model was created. If Muskoka councillors are serious about restraining budgets and better utilizing the tax dollars we are entrusted to spend, now is the time to have that discussion.
It may be early days in the current term of this District Council but the process of change takes time. Having a debate on whether or not we should adjust the number of chairs around the council table is only tinkering with the system.
Former publisher of Muskoka Magazine and What’s Up Muskoka, Don Smith was elected as a Bracebridge representative on Muskoka District Council in last year’s municipal elections.