Aurora residents are in for big change at the ballot box and not all candidates like it

·4 min read
Aurora Ward 1 candidate Ron Weese says many residents don't know about the change to a ward system, requiring more effort for the town and candidates to educate them. (Submitted: Ron Weese - image credit)
Aurora Ward 1 candidate Ron Weese says many residents don't know about the change to a ward system, requiring more effort for the town and candidates to educate them. (Submitted: Ron Weese - image credit)

Aurora residents are in for a big change when they head to the ballot box for October's municipal election as the town shifts to a ward system for the first time, but some candidates for council aren't so sure it's a good idea.

For years, citizens of the municipality, located in central York Region north of Toronto, voted for a mayor and up to six councillors-at-large. They will now be voting for a mayor and ward councillors who will represent their immediate areas — bringing  Aurora into line with the rest of Ontario's larger municipalities.

"This is a story of a growing community that has decided to take how it is governed into its own hands. That's really exciting," said political scientist Kate Graham, an expert in local government at Western University.

The current council explored the possibility of changing to a ward system, engaging outside parties to report on the pros and cons of making a change and conducting a formal review, ultimately voting in favour of making the change in 2020.

Studio Kuefner Photography
Studio Kuefner Photography

The Town of Aurora was the largest municipality in Ontario still electing its representatives using the at-large system.

According to the census, the population of Aurora is only continuing to grow, so the town decided to review the electoral system out of concern about representation.

With councillors responsible for a smaller group of residents, the ward system "is understood to provide a closer relationship between a group of citizens or residents and their elected officials," said Graham.

It changes how many residents a campaign needs to reach and it means campaigns can focus more on specific issues in a ward, she says.

Mayoral candidates ready for the change

Tom Mrakas, who has served as the town's mayor for the last four years and is seeking re-election, says he thinks community specific issues were getting lost in the old system and councillor workloads were unbalanced.

"The change to wards is about better governance and better engagement with our community from councillors," he said.

Submitted by: Tom Mrakas
Submitted by: Tom Mrakas

Fellow mayoral candidates Anna Lozyk Romeo and Phionna Durrant say they are ready to embrace the change and believe that for whomever is elected mayor, making room for diverse perspectives emerging from different wards is essential.

Ward 3 candidate Harold MacDonald says the change makes campaigning more "manageable."

Only needing to reach a more limited area is welcome, he says,

"Printing and delivering signs and brochures covering the entire town … it's an onerous and costly task," he told CBC Toronto.

MacDonald also says the change may have encouraged more newcomers to council to run.

Ward system 'more divisive,' candidate says

The current council voted just 4-3 in favour of the shift to the new system. And in 2014, a non-binding referendum on a shift to a ward system failed.

Ward 6 candidate Greg Smith says he doesn't like what the change has done to the election so far.

"It seems more divisive," said Smith.

"I feel that wards are good for politicians, and they're bad for residents….only having the opportunity to vote for one person in their ward as opposed to voting for all six."

Submitted by Greg Smith
Submitted by Greg Smith

Zach Spicer, a professor at York University's School of Public Policy, says when it comes time to govern, the at-large system makes it "easier to vote for the health of the city as a whole as opposed to your own particular ward."

The ward system means the mayor is the only one with a real "city-wide purview," Spicer says.

Voters 'unaware' of change

Some candidates are in favour of the change but are concerned residents don't know about the shift to a ward system and many may only clue in at the ballot box.

Despite ward billboards letting residents know their ward and a portal on the town website, Ward 5 candidate Steve Fleck says almost nobody knows what's happening.

"I've knocked on about 1,000 doors so far ... Generally speaking, the majority are unaware that we're moving to the ward system," said Fleck.

But, he says, he's happy to educate voters.

Ward 1 candidate Ron Weese says he decided to put his name forward this time around because he loves where he lives but sees some specific challenges in his ward.

Weese says he likes what he thinks the change will mean for representation, but he's already worried the change is creating confusion.

Like Fleck, he says few people were aware of the change and what ward they are in as he's been campaigning.

Still, he says, candidates and the town have to just keep trying.

"This is the first time out. We're all trying hard to make it work," Weese said.

"And we're going to have to wait and see when the chips fall."