Opinion| Too Many City Councillors Lovin’ the Gravy Train

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When I read in council’s agenda package last week that the committee charged with reviewing the makeup of council was recommending cutting back to 10 councillors from 12 and five wards from six for the civic election next year, my initial reaction was to question what seemed like a meagre reduction.

But I got my answer as to why the number was so low watching council Monday night.

It was all those who wanted more – Mayor Christian Provenzano and Coun. Matthew Shoemaker – were going to get.

The others on the committee, Councillors Susan Myers, Sandra Hollingsworth, Paul Christian and Marchy Bruni, weren’t willing to make the cut to the eight seats the mayor and Shoemaker preferred. In fact, Bruni, as he made clear at council, wasn’t in favour of any cuts at all.

Personally, I think councillors should have bitten the bullet and gone with eight. After all, they would be the only ones complaining about the move. You won’t hear much, if anything, against if from the taxpaying public.

Actually, the estimated saving of $60,000 a year for the loss of two councillors may not seem like much, but when you consider it will occur year after year and will become even more with inflation, it is worthwhile.

But $120,000 a year, which would have come with the reduction of four council seats, would have made it really worthwhile.

Provenzano and Councillors Shoemaker, Myers, Hollingsworth, Christian, Frank Fata and Rick Niro voted in favour of the reduction. Councillors Bruni, Steve Butland, Lou Turco, Judy Hupponen and Joe Krmpotich voted against. Coun. Ross Romano abstained, which meant his vote was registered as a no.

Bruni and Turco felt a referendum was in order.

“I think we should let the people decide. That’s why we were elected,” Turco said.

No, Lou, you were elected to make decisions.

It was a thought that also seemed lost on Romano, who is going to carry the Progressive Conservative banner in the by-election to replace David Orazietti, our former Liberal representative.

So that he doesn’t think no one noticed I will remind the councillor here that we want decisions, not abstentions, from our representatives.

Some councillors seemed to be afraid of an increased workload with the cutbacks but Christian and Hollingsworth pretty well put that complaint to rest, pointing out that with technology a councillor’s workload has actually decreased.

And anyway, those who don’t like the workload have an out, don’t run in the next election.

Some seriously seemed to think the level of discourse would be lowered, as if that were even possible. I believe the excess verbiage, the repetition, will be cut down with fewer councillors as they may be more inclined to get to the point.

Niro pointed out the Sault stands out like a sore thumb when its numbers are compared to other northern municipalities.

He actually could have said other communities in the country as the committee provided a comprehensive breakdown that showed many of comparable size had fewer councillors than the Sault.

As I pointed out in a column last year, cities with 12 councillors which are closest to the Sault’s 75,000 population were Guelph at 115,000, Kingston at 117,000, Thunder Bay at 120,000, Sudbury at 158,000 and St. Catharines at 132,000, all at least half again the size of the Sault.

However, at that time some of the figures that really gave me pause when compared to our own were those involving Kitchener, with a population of 204,000, and Cambridge with 126,000. Both have only six councillors, with one for each of six wards. New Westminster, population 58,000, also has only six councillors and Burnaby, 202,000; Oshawa, 152,000; Lethbridge, 84,000; Niagara Falls, 82,000; Victoria, 78,000; and Sarnia, 72,000, have eight.

Calgary, with a population of 1,065,000, has 14 councillors, one for each ward, which translates into one councillor for every 76,000 residents, which is less than the population of the Sault.

In my column presenting these figures, I said to readers: “I think you will understand why I now support the proposal for eight councillors for eight wards put forward in 1996 by then councillors the Late Charlie Swift and the Late Udo Rauk. I probably would have been in support of their proposal in 1996 if I had taken the time to do this research at that time or if the councillors had provided similar information.”

Shoemaker referred to the move to 10 as an incremental step, which means a future council will probably be expected to visit this again. But I have trouble believing it will ever go below the 10 as too many councillors will not want to risk getting pushed off the gravy train.

That, of course, flies in the face of what the public would prefer.

The committee’s report showed the majority of survey responses from the public indicated support for retaining the six-ward but cutting back to one councillor in each ward. However, the committee was concerned that this approach would seriously jeopardize the city’s governance. It listed its concerns as follows:

“1. Having wards of one councillor per ward would leave geographic areas of the city unrepresented if a councillor was ill or travelling;

“2. Having only six councillors seriously jeopardized the amount of committee work that councillors could undertake. For instance, all city councillors would have to sit on the DSSAB for the entire term of council with no rotation;

“3. Council quorum would be significantly reduced to four councillors (plus the Mayor) and as a consequence, three people could ultimately make a decision that significantly impacts the entire community;

“4. City councillors could potentially require additional staff resources to manage and respond to their constituents increasing cost to the city.”

The committee also considered and discussed the ward system versus the at-large system but decided the ward system, which was used by the majority of the communities surveyed, was the best fit for the Sault.

I can’t see the reduction of two councillors as having much of an effect on a councillor’s workload or performance. If the reduction had been for four, then I would have suggested council should look at the committees it has representatives sit on and see where this could be cut back.

For one thing, council should curtail the glory-seekers by having its members sit on outside organizations as city representatives only. Councillors should not be allowed to become the chairperson of any outside organization, since doing so obviously increases the workload of that councillor on what would not be considered city business.

One final thought: If councils in some cities similar in size to the Sault can handle the workload with six or eight councillors, our councillors should not have any trouble handling it with 10.

If they can’t, there is something wrong with them, not the system.

 

Doug Millroy can be reached at dmillroy@gmail.com.

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