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OPINION: Dave Dale, If wards are the solution, what’s the problem?

It’s not something most sitting councillors like to discuss because it adds a new element in their bid for re-election. Once you’re elected by at-large vote, why would you want to change and seek support in a specific neighbourhood?
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A tonne of concrete can be moved with strategic persuasion faster than a municipal council.

The City of North Bay isn’t necessarily against change. It adapts and evolves just like any other municipality in Ontario.

Arguments can be made, however, that North Bay relies on only two gears when it comes to alterations: knee-jerk and glacier-like. The rare bird in this part of the world is strategic, studied and incremental steps.

One example is the perennial debate over the pros and cons of the current at-large system and one where members (all or a portion) are elected to represent wards or sections of the city.

I was thinking about this on the weekend while helping an uncle move an old 45-gallon barrel of concrete away from his dock. Low water had made the obsolete footing a detriment because his pontoon boat, when tied to his preferred spot, was bouncing off it as people stepped aboard.

For those who are unaware, an 1,800-pound plug of anything doesn’t crawl out of a pit of clay and duck muck without persuasion. Unless you have an excavator-worth of brute strength, it’s a game of inches, engineering and perseverance – similar to getting North Bay council moving in a specific direction.

Like many times before, the option of a ward system was certainly topical during the 2018 election campaign. The elected council, however, shot down a motion directing staff to prepare a report on the matter. The vote was 6-4 against in January 2020, with dissenters either convinced it was not a good fit for the community or wanted staff to focus on other priorities. The small size and complexity of the city’s infrastructure, as well as demographics and geographical attributes, were noted in the discussions.

Not a lot was said about it since, probably because a pandemic arrived on the scene a couple of months later and there were indeed many more important things on everybody’s mind.

Democratic issues such as effective representation never really die, though, with each election cycle breathing new life into the topic.

The subject of wards was one of the top two issues raised when I wrote in my September 7 column about possibly putting my hat in the ring for North Bay council in 2022.

The first question, naturally, was about how I’d qualify as a candidate as a non-resident of the community. Interestingly, the issues are related.

It’s my understanding that a non-resident can qualify as a municipal election candidate the same way you would qualify to be a non-resident voter: by either owning property in North Bay or by being a tenant (renting), including retail space if the business is in your own name.

Important to note, I won’t be making a decision about political life until June next year and the details of qualifying still have to be confirmed. In the meantime, it’s interesting how residency is – and isn’t – considered vital to different people. Some believe very strongly that elected officials should have to live with the results of their decisions on their residential property taxes. Others believe owners of property, renters and operators of business already have a stake in how the municipality is governed. No doubt more will be written about that topic in the future.

Debate about the ward system dovetails similar ground. Proponents often support it because it brings the elected official one more step toward local representation, especially if the ward councillor must live in that specific area.

Not everybody realizes that municipalities in Ontario are free to create whatever council system they want. It can be at-large, where voters have a choice in filling all 10 seats, completely by ward representatives or a combination of the two systems.

North Bay, for example, could have five wards with the top candidates of each being part of council with the other five seats filled by those running at-large. Technically, it’s even possible to have the top two candidates in each ward winning seats.

The city, incorporated in 1925, is actually three areas brought together through the amalgamation of Widdifield and West Ferris in 1968. You could have two representatives of each of those areas and four at-large councillors if desired.

It’s not something most sitting councillors like to discuss because it adds a new element in their bid for re-election. Once you’re elected by an at-large vote, why would you want to change and seek support in a specific neighbourhood?

There’s also the argument that ward systems feed into parochial divisions where different sections of a city compete for limited resources. It’s possible inexperienced or ineffective politicians put their wards at a disadvantage for four years at a time.

They also presume those elected under an at-large system keep the entire city in mind when making decisions, nurturing the idea of a complete community.

Also voiced is the concern that a ward system could leave good candidates by the wayside if several strong leaders compete for a specific ward seat (although that can be mitigated by system design, see above).

Those who support a ward system, or the consideration of such, look to address concerns residents of an area might have about their neighbourhood being neglected – and they are not convinced by the “greater good” assertions.

It gives constituents of each ward an identifiable person to contact instead of seeking out a potentially lesser-known committee head responsible for a service. It also provides a community leader to head up a specific project or stand against it, as the majority of voters direct them.

Unfortunately, and this speaks to the glacier-like gear of change, North Bay isn’t in the position to consider an alteration of the system for 2022. The best constituents can achieve is convincing council – possibly through petition – to put the question on the ballot and have the next council address it. There’s still a couple of months before the first deadlines of the process come up.

If that fails, another way to address concerns about localized representation is to convince council to devise a way for members to be designated an unofficial “ward” representative. It doesn’t necessarily provide a resident in your neighbourhood to represent you, but at least you have someone to direct your thoughts and frustration.

They could be directed to keep a file on issues for that ward and report back to constituents about the progress to rectify concerns.

Like the 1,800-pound plug of concrete, it wasn’t going to move unless someone is willing to wade into the squishy goo.

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses related to his work can be sent to [email protected]. To contact the writer directly, email: [email protected] or check out his website