By Kate Proctor
It may seem like a long time ago now, but we all just went through a municipal election in October. While municipal elections do not always garner the same flash and attention of their provincial and federal counterparts, people who volunteer to sit on our municipal councils deserve, at the very least, that we, the voters, take the time to educate ourselves and better understand our system.
I helped with our local all-candidates meeting, filling in at the last minute and not really knowing a lot about what I had agreed to do. My role was to read the questions submitted by the people who attended the gathering and, as I understood, to try and eliminate duplication. That didn’t sound too tough – I thought I would be able to understand the questions and make sure the questions put to the candidates were at least original and not merely repeating the same thing over and over.
First of all, I was impressed by the number of people who came out on a wet, cold October evening – the organizers, candidates, and residents all deserve kudos for being there. It was very clear that everyone had a common concern and care for our rural community. While some were motivated by things they were upset about, and some were just curious – everyone wanted the best for our community.
When I read over the questions, it also became clear to me that many residents, myself included, needed a basic education about municipal politics – what is the role of council, the role of mayor, how do decisions get made, who is allowed to run for council, where are the boundaries between federal, provincial, and municipal decisions, and how do we work together to achieve the most efficient government possible to help our communities thrive.
I have asked a few people who have been elected as municipal councilors for at least one term what they wish we all knew about municipal councils. The biggest thing that surprised me with their answers was how much they love the job! They love meeting people, getting to know them, and having the chance to try to make our communities better places to live.
Central Huron Mayor Jim Ginn told me “I probably get 10 compliments for every derogatory remark. Often I am thanked for doing the job because everyone knows somebody has to do it. The job can be tough at times but I believe it is one of the most rewarding jobs anyone could take on. What could be more rewarding than people trusting you with their money to provide the services they depend on every day? Honestly, this is the best job going!” This sentiment was echoed by other councilors I talked to.
Residents want to pay fewer taxes and get more services, and there are a host of social problems that land in the laps of municipal councils, who are asked to juggle the needs of their community within all of the constraints of money, provincial, and federal rules. Mayor Ginn explained that people need to understand that “municipalities are creatures of the province”. Municipal councils have their decisions governed by a lot of provincial legislation including the Municipal Act, the Planning Act, the Aggregate Act, the Forestry Act, the Drainage Act… you get the picture. “Most of what we do is mandated, but there is a little room to wiggle. Successful councils will listen to the public to determine the path forward,” added Mayor Ginn.
Municipal councils are also limited in what they can do by the amount of money they control. In Morris-Turnberry, using 2022 budget values, approximately 13 per cent of a ratepayer’s property taxes go to the school boards and 29 per cent go to the county. The remaining 58 per cent is retained by the municipality. Those funds are used to provide mandated services such as police, fire, snow removal, road maintenance, and landfill operations. Because these services are mandated, council’s discretion on how the funds can be spent can be limited. Morris-Turnberry Mayor Jamie Heffer estimated that the municipal council has the ability to make decisions on only about ten per cent of total property tax dollars that are collected.
Mayor Heffer also said that residents should set realistic expectations considering the limited tax base in small rural municipalities, and remember to keep a “broader view of the local community that goes beyond municipal borders”.
Zoey Onn, formerly a councilor in Huron East, wished people knew more about how much research and thought goes into decisions that councilors make. “Every report that is brought to council is researched by staff to the utmost degree”. As well, council rigorously scrutinizes anything that is put before it before it is passed. A quick online search can bring up minutes of council meetings, budgets, and monetary decisions if you can’t attend the meetings and witness this for yourself.
Councilors also mentioned the power held by the mayor and the council. “The mayor does not rule the council, they do not get to vote unless it is a tie breaking vote. In essence the mayor is the public figure who brings forth the information supplied by the Chief Administrative Officer and runs the council meetings. To think that there is power in this position is incorrect and it is the collective power of the council that makes decisions,” said Onn.
Central Huron Councilor Alison Lobb added “ratepayers have legitimate concerns and a good council has enough variety in its members that at least one person has experience or knowledge to help resolve the issue at hand. You certainly get to know your fellow councilors, and appreciate their strengths. You learn to work together, with your staff, to solve problems. Another thing you learn is that your voice is only one and the council speaks as a whole. Once a decision is made, you must all support it. And you learn to appreciate that rules are in place for a reason. If you want to change something it takes a lot of work and energy and you have to be prepared that your wishes may not prevail in the end.” ◊