Tay residents attending a recent public consultation meeting said council's membership should remain at seven and wards kept intact.
The gathering, held virtually, invited residents to express their opinions around the two changes to council that have been discussed a number of times over the course of the last year or so. The process was set in motion when the province directed all municipalities to look for efficiencies, possibly in the form of amalgamation or a change to the council structure.
Before the public was given a chance to voice their opinions, township clerk Cyndi Bonneville, shared the results of a recent survey, which was filled out by 97 participants. Out of that number, a majority had answered favourably for a five-member council and the move to an at-large system.
Those attending the meeting, however, were of the opposite opinion.
"I'm here to voice my strongest possible objections against the proposal to move our township to an at-large system," said Mathew Lund. "I have had the opportunity to speak with many in our community who likewise share the sentiment that this is counter to what a representational democracy would look like."
As someone who lives in the rural Tay community, he said, the lack of a ward would be deeply felt among the voters.
"Those living rurally already feel unrepresented and apathetic to having their concerns dealt with," said Lund. "A move to an at-large system will mean that Victoria Harbour, as a population base, will be the only area where members of council will be able to get elected from. And areas like Port McNicoll, Waverley, and Waubaushene will be ignored.
"This move seems less about efficiency and more about a monopoly to control and consolidate power," he added.
Lund suggested that potential changes to council should involve reducing Port McNicoll's ward representatives from two to one, using that surplus to turn rural Tay into a ward with representation.
Rufus Willett said he agreed with his fellow Tay resident and couldn't add anything more than his reiteration that the council size should not be reduced.
Victoria Reaume, who was calling in from Waubaushene, said she felt a lot of people are struggling with which way to go.
"I do agree that rural Tay should have a representative," she said. "I think it would be important for rural Tay to have a ward. I think it would be equally important that Waubaushene keeps its ward and Victoria Harbour and Port McNicoll also have representatives. It's always useful to have a real diversity of opinion from across the township, so I would be in favour of maintaining seven members on council."
Reaume added that one of her concerns would be around the recent structural reorganization.
"You also recently redid your whole committee and voting structure," she said. "It seems to be working quite well. I think you would struggle to meet the requirements of that new system with a five-member council."
Another caller said she was in favour of status quo.
"I feel the current system since 1994 has been working very well," said Sylvia Bumstead. "The idea of a totally rural ward is appealing to me, because it would encompass quite a large area.
"I think Tay has a very unique settlement area and we need to look at that," she added, addressing the potential switch to an at-large system. "I am opposed to reducing council and I'm opposed to at-large voting."
Once the residents had expressed their opinions, it was time for council members to share their thoughts.
No ward boundary re-alignment can lead to Ward 3 receiving more representation, said Mayor Ted Walker.
"It will always be stuck at one," he said talking about Waubaushene. "And the related resentments of residents in that ward will always remain. The agricultural community is not only our largest economic provider but our largest employer and very significant to our tax base. To have an agricultural rural voice is seriously negatively impacted by the ward system. There is no ward re-alignment that can fix that issue due to the low population compared to the urban areas."
Walker said in his mind, the ward system does not exist anymore.
"It was gone when the province allowed anyone to run for a position from another ward," he said. "I don't think that person works any less hard than those living in that ward."
Others were questioning the need for the review.
"Are we initiating change just for the sake of change?" said Coun. Paul Raymond. "I ask that because after an eight month study, council voted to change the organizational committee structure. If we adopt the five-member council, this committee structure will have to be scrapped in favour of the previous system where all council members have to participate. The quorum restriction will have additional impact on how council works."
But, he said, he agreed with Walker's statement that any candidate can represent anyone anywhere in the township.
Walker provided an answer to this question that had also been on the mind of a resident.
"The committee system that everyone is talking about, wouldn't be harmed, we would just do a review and adjust things," he said.
Coun. Mary Warnock said she wasn't sure how the reduction in council size would affect municipal representation at county.
"We have a two-tier system, our mayor and deputy mayor are county reps, and that would leave two councillor sitting on all committees," she said.
Warnock also said there may not be any savings as the the pay scale of the remaining five will also increase.
Walker responded to both those concerns.
"We have never discussed that if we go to a five council system, there will be a wage increase," he said, adding, "County council is also reviewing its number. One of the options that's gaining traction is to reduce the existing (membership) from 32 to 16, so in the future both mayor and deputy mayor may not be required to be on county council."
Coun. Jeff Bumstead was of the opinion that the ward system follows a pre-conceived or historical way of thinking that one ward has more representation over another.
He said he was in favour of eliminating the ward system "to move the municipality forward and eliminate the ongoing Victoria Harbour versus Port McNicoll versus Waubaushene way of thinking, while the rural and Waverley areas feel they get left out of the conversation or consideration.
"I believe moving to an at-large method of voting will help Tay be a more collective municipality."
Staff will bring forward a report to a future council meeting based on all the public feedback. Changes two both matters will have to be passed in a bylaw by the end of the year. The ward system bylaw can be appealed, whereas a change to council composition does not provide for an objection mechanism.
Mehreen Shahid, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, OrilliaMatters.com