Opinion

Debate over how to elect people is heating up in rural Ontario

By Jim Merriam, Toronto Sun

Strategic voting may explain the surprising results from Monday's election. (EDMONTON SUN/File)

Strategic voting may explain the surprising results from Monday's election. (EDMONTON SUN/File)

The debate over how to elect local councillors, school board trustees and such is heating up in rural Ontario.

The next election for municipal bodies is not until October 2014. Although 24 months seems like a lengthy advance period, if municipalities are to change the way they elect their local officials, a lot of work must be done in advance of the actual voting day.

The various systems currently in use are at-large voting and ward voting or some combination thereof.

In at-large systems, all electors are allowed to cast their ballots for their choice of candidate for all positions.

Ward systems provide for a council member from each ward, or area of the municipality, elected only by residents of that ward.

The combination systems, which are common, allow electors to vote for a ward council member or two and also cast ballots for senior positions such as mayor and deputy mayor, which are elected at large.

Movements to change the current system, or at least investigate the pros and cons of changing the system, are gaining momentum in a number of rural areas and small towns throughout the province.

Similar debates are going on in larger centres as well and in other provinces.

Changes are being proposed, no matter what system is currently in place. In other words, lots of rural voters with a ward system want to change to at-large voting and vice versa. The grass is always greener and all that.

Ward voting in many parts of rural Ontario came into effect with municipal amalgamation.

Ajay Sharman described that process, from the mid 1990s, in the introduction to an academic paper.

He said the Progressive Conservative government of the day implemented policies “that transformed the institutional relationship between the province and its municipal subordinates. Such policies were designed to create a system that would be more streamlined, rational, and most importantly, cost-effective.

“To achieve these goals, municipalities across Ontario were consolidated on the assumption that larger municipalities would have the capacity to operate in a more cost-effective manner. Quite perversely, however, the opposite effect has been observed as the costs of municipal operations have increased.”

The rising costs and even amalgamation itself deserve full debate, but are issues for another column. Ward-voting systems were introduced to ensure that disparate regions would continue to be heard in local council chambers. And believe me, some amalgamations joined disparate regions, creating a real dog’s breakfast of cultures and interests.

The need for a voice continues to be a key argument for the pro-ward crowd.

Critics of the ward system dislike the fact that each elector does not have the opportunity to vote for all members of the governing body in question. Although discussions — sometimes heated discussions — will continue for the next two years, an informal survey would indicate the more rural the community, the more likely it is to favour the ward system.

Many rural Ontarians who live in the boonies have experience with larger governments ignoring us — witness the current provincial government — and share a legitimate concern the same thing could happen with councils and school boards elected at large only.

It really comes down to the relationship of the elected to the electors.

People believe they have much more chance to be heard if their ward representative lives down the street, or is a friend of a friend of an ex brother-in-law.

jmerriam@bmts.com

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