NORTH PERTH – A report seeking an opinion on the need for a ward boundary review was presented to North Perth council on April 26.
“Section 2:23 of the Municipal Act states electors in a municipality may present a petition to council asking the council to pass a bylaw dividing or redevising the municipalities’ wards or dissolving the existing wards,” said Clerk Pat Berfelz.
Council has not discussed ward boundary changes since July 2013. A ward boundary review would consider various system configurations for the municipality and involve significant public consultation.
It also provides an opportunity to address the composition of the local council. In a ward boundary review, the process is conducted factoring population and growth-planning information, not the number of electors.
Data regarding the number of electors relevant to municipal elections is provided by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation. So, when conducting a ward boundary review, the focus is typically at a growth planning level, rather than strictly related to election-planning purposes.
North Perth has seen significant development and population growth in the past decade. North Perth’s current ward boundaries were established in 1998 during amalgamation. According to census data, the population in 1998 was 11,808. By the 2011 census, the population had grown to 12,631 and 13,130 by 2016. This represents a population increase of 13.5 per cent from 1998 to 2016.
The Official Plan growth forecasts estimate the municipality’s population will increase to 14,700 before the next municipal election, 16,800 by 2031, and 17,400 by 2041.
For the 2018 municipal election, there were 9,687 eligible electors; 2,606 were in Elma, 5,669 were in Listowel and 1,412 were in Wallace.
For any new ward boundaries to be in place for the 2022 municipal election, a bylaw must be in effect by Jan. 1 and any appeals to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) must be concluded by then.
In the report presented to council, Berfelz recommended council consider four options.
The first being to remain status quo with the mayor and deputy mayor elected at large and three Elma ward councillors, three Listowel ward councillors and two Wallace ward councillors.
The second option would be to move to an election-at-large system which would dissolve the existing ward system to allow all electors to vote for all positions of council.
If it was deemed desirable to change to the election-at-large system, the report stated the Municipal Act would require changes to be completed by the end of 2021 in anticipation of the 2022 election.
To meet the deadline, Berfelz recommended council could consider the following timelines:
• A public survey in May 2021.
• A public meeting on June 3.
• A final report to council on June 14.
• Adopt a bylaw on June 21.
• The formal 15-day notice would be sent out by June 23.
• The formal 45-day appeal period would expire on Aug. 9.
The third option recommended in the report to council was public engagement – instructing staff to proceed with a survey and public meeting process to obtain input on the options of the electoral process for North Perth.
The final option was to procure the services of a consultant to undertake a ward boundary review.
“I have had a conversation with CAO Kriss Snell regarding a concern that any decision of council results in a hearing before LPAT – council may not meet the deadline for the 2022 election,” said Berfelz. “My first response was if that was to happen North Perth would then be well prepared for the next municipal election in 2026. However, in speaking with the consultant he agreed the timelines are tight but is led to believe that LPAT is prepared and may move these hearings along quicker to meet the municipal election January deadline.”
Coun. Dave Johnston asked if there could be a mix of maintaining a ward system and electing more than just the mayor and deputy mayor from at-large.
Mayor Todd Kasenberg said he recalls revisions being made to the Municipal Act which does not allow a hybrid election system that includes ward and at-large election for councillors.
Coun. Matt Richardson said he thinks the option to engage the public was the best choice because since 2013 there has been an influx of people move to town.
“I do believe it needs to go for public engagement for their opinion only for the reason that I’ve been a very large proponent of at-large voting,” he said. “I think the time has come to have that conversation again and go to at-large now… I think we want to make it as streamlined as possible so I’m in favour of at least seeing what the public thinks.
“At the end of the day, they are the ones electing the representatives… it’s a decision of council but ultimately it’s a decision of the voting public – what they want to have.”
Coun. Terry Seiler said when he was campaigning it was a topic of discussion raised by constituents.
“I feel it’s very important that every ratepayer in North Perth can vote for whoever is running for office in our municipality,” he said.
Coun. Allan Rothwell asked if the consultant would specifically be looking at ward boundary changes.
Berfelz said the consultant could look at ward boundaries, council compensation and council composition depending on the wishes of council.
“Supplementary there are two issues there, you just said about council compensation,” said Rothwell. “I thought we had a consultant already looking at that with public involvement, is that correct?”
“That’s right,” said Berfelz. “But it could all be part of the conversation.”
Rothwell said he was interested in moving to elections-at-large.
“I think the time has come for us to investigate that,” he said. “My understanding is in Perth County there is only one municipality that has done away with wards and that’s Perth South… but I’d be in favour of election-at-large and then… public engagement, I think that’s the crucial part.”
“It’s not that I disagree with any of the comments but we do have a democratic system here in Canada,” said Coun. Julie Behrns. “Both our federal and provincial governments believe in a ward system for fair representation.”
She said she has a concern about not celebrating the differences between urban and rural and trying to eliminate them.
“The truth of the matter is in this day and age we should be celebrating differences and recognizing diversity instead of trying to hide it,” said Behrns. “I am in favour of some sort of ward system. I’m not saying it has to be what was assigned at amalgamation.”
She said her concern is that this is a far-reaching conversation that involves many things including the number of representatives, the compensation, the requirements of a councillor’s time to sit on the boards and she believes it’s not just a ward boundary conversation.
“My concern is that I don’t think that we can do everything and get it in front of LPAT in time for the next election,” she said. “I’m not saying don’t have the conversation but I’m saying I don’t believe good decisions come from being rushed to make a decision and I feel right now – shoot we’re halfway – you know we’re at the end of April and you want us to have a decision by January.”
Behrns said she is not convinced that the issue needs to be rushed.
“Yes, it’s important to get the public opinion but the public already gave us their opinion two years ago,” she said. “It’s not that we can’t make the decision but I do think you might want to go to the public a couple of times, not just once.”
Behrns said it is not a good time of year for a survey.
“Everything is beginning to be busy for the agricultural community,” she said.
Then Behrns said the decision will be made on the arbitrary number of 257 people.
“I don’t think that’s a matter of fairness either,” she said.
Behrns said her perspective is that council should identify what they are hoping to make better and fairer for every citizen of North Perth.
“Is it we’ve got too many people on council? Is it we don’t have fair representation? What is the ultimate reason or reasons for changing it because although fairness is very subjective, right now we know the system that we have,” she said.
She said she likes the idea of electing the third member to represent at county council at-large.
“I think that’s long overdue but we have to ask what are we changing and why and then move on from there,” said Behrns.
Coun. Lee Anne Andreissen said this is an important decision for council to make and if she could wave a magic wand she’d “certainly want everyone to have a voice in who is representing their elected officials.”
“It’s critical that we have the right kind of representation at the table once the election is done and that representation here in North Perth needs to have a flavour of both urban and rural,” she said. “I am very concerned that over time and even in the immediate future, at-large elections could provide such a disadvantage for our rural contestants going into council because the number of the population in our rural areas is far lower than our urban residents.”
Andriessen said the experience of agriculture needs to be lived experience.
“We have all great potential learning different aspects of our municipality but there is nothing more important than having the lived experience of those in agriculture to bring that information directly to this table and that’s my concern,” she said.
Andriessen said she appreciates the fact that it’s important to hear from constituents, but said the problem comes down to representation once again even in a survey because even if everyone provided their opinion in that survey, urban representation would be far higher than agricultural or rural representation.
“I’m concerned about what all the options are at this time to make sure we’re meeting the needs of the constituents,” she said. “At the end of the day we have to be able to represent those needs and the people at this table need to have the knowledge and ability to do so.”
Coun. Neil Anstett said he had far too many questions to be commenting on which choice should be made at this point but he said it was important to engage the public.
“I just go back to the fact that the ward system, and again I wasn’t here during amalgamation, but the ward system was chosen at that time for a reason,” he said. “I think it was to provide that equal representation. So I think that does still have some merit but I do want to see what the public has to say.”
Deputy Mayor Doug Kellum said he agreed that connecting with constituents for their opinion and he also agreed that council should take its time.
“There is no rush for this,” he said. “We don’t need to run it through without doing it right the very first time… I would like to get things going as soon as possible but not rush.”
Coun. Matt Duncan said he has been a strong supporter of the ward system since he was elected. He said he has been through this exercise a couple of times and he thinks the ward system is important for the representation of the rural, less populated areas.
He expressed concern that all elected officials could come from a portion of the municipality that has a larger population in an at-large system.
“I think that’s a very important aspect to keep,” said Duncan. “That being said I’m willing to go to public engagement with this and I think what we should be doing is preparing the next council to make this decision with all the footwork being done between now and the next electoral time.”
Richardson said he did not mean to insinuate the issue needs to be rushed.
“I understand, appreciate and agree with the representation that we get from the different wards that we have in North Perth, but keep in mind that the only time specific wards are mentioned as totally separate entities is during election time,” he said. “We are spending the money of the ratepayers for the entire Municipality of North Perth, basically, wards go out the window after the election because everything is about North Perth top to bottom, the best decision at the time for any proposal that’s in front of you.”
Behrns asked if a question could be added to the ballot for the 2022 election.
“If we could work our way up to potentially a new electoral system for North Perth even if we didn’t get to the final approval is there still the opportunity to put a question on the ballot regarding how our electoral system is working?” she asked.
Berfelz said that adding a question to the ballot could be done and she thought it was a very good idea.
“We should take our time,” she said. “I’m not here to rush you but I do believe that to bring this report to a new council following an election is unfair and also to leave this report too close to the election is unfair.”
“I was quite intrigued with Coun. Behrns’ comment about looking at outcomes,” said Kasenberg. “What is the outcome that we want to change with regards to this that would warrant us to make a change to our electoral process and system?
“I think that it’s incumbent on council before we consult the public to have that discussion about outcomes and what we think needs to change.”
Kasenberg said council should look at the pros and cons here of these outcomes and have a workshop to talk about the outcomes and the assessment in a meaningful way to develop options to bring to the community for engagement.
“We want to do this well and right and it is intriguing to me to put this on as a ballot question in 2022,” he said.
“Putting it on the ballot is a great idea but I still think we need to engage the public’s appetite first and foremost,” said Richardson. “If there is very little interest in doing anything, putting it on the ballot is a little moot.”
Behrns clarified that putting a motion on the ballot should be done if they get to a stage where they have a question to put to the public or if they have got to the point where they’ve decided they are seriously looking at election-at-large or a change to the ward system.
“My point about the question on the ballot was that if we weren’t ready to change the boundary we could have somewhat of a confirmation by putting it on the ballot and asking those that vote what they thought,” she said.
Behrns said she liked the idea of workshops to have discussions about the issues before engaging the public.
Council passed a resolution in favour of participating in workshops.
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner