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Regional composition complicates ward switch

wards

The region’s process of potentially changing the number of regional councillors Oshawa will have has complicated the city’s process in bringing back the ward system. Changes must be in place before the end of 2017 if it is to be in place for the 2018 municipal election. (Graphic courtesy of the City of Oshawa).

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

Oshawa’s switch back to a ward system may stall before it even gets started.

Due to Durham Region’s ongoing review of its council composition, the City of Oshawa has opted to wait until that review is completed to start its ward boundary study.

“The regional activity is impacting our plans here within the city,” says Bev Hendry, commissioner of corporate services. “Staff have been particularly in a quandary about how to proceed.”

The problem being, a revised regional council makeup could see a change in the number of council seats for Oshawa, something that would have a direct impact on any potential ward system review.

To move forward with any potential review at this point would be merely an exercise in speculation, a city report reads.

“Delaying the review until after the regional exercise is complete will reduce the complexity of the city’s ward boundary review and allow participants to focus on the core issues to be addressed, rather than speculating about the potential implications for the city as a result of decisions yet to be made,” the report reads.

“There are so many factors that aren’t known,” Councillor Nancy Diamond said at the most recent meeting of the corporate services committee, noting concerns about a timeline that is growing increasingly tighter.

Following a referendum attached to the 2014 municipal election ballot, 72 per cent of voters requested a switch back to a ward system. Oshawa has been using an at-large system since a 2006 referendum saw more than 60 per cent of the voting population request a move away from the ward system which had been in place since 1985.

Oshawa councillors are not legally bound to move back to the ward system, due to the fact that less than 50 per cent of eligible voters turned out for the 2014 referendum. However, councillors have made it clear they were listening to those who did show up, and passed a motion in December 2014 to initiate the switch back.

It was in May that the region initiated their council composition review, tossing a policy wrench into Oshawa’s municipal gears.

The final report from the regional council composition committee is expected to come before regional council in March. However, according to Jason McWilliam, the city’s manager of records and information systems, the final decision would come months later.

“We’re probably looking to September or October of this year, or later, to know a final answer,” he says.

This is mainly due to the lengthy approval process that follows an approved change by regional councillors. The region’s requested change must go before Ted McMeekin, the Minister of Municipal Affairs, where the bylaw will sit on a legislative shelf for 45 days to receive public input.  Following this, McMeekin himself will make a decision, a process for which there is no timeline.

If that decision is a positive one, the region must send the bylaw down through its lower tier municipalities and receive a triple majority before it can enacted. This means, the bylaw must pass by a majority vote at regional council (first majority), the majority of lower tier municipalities must approve the bylaw in their own chambers (second majority) and finally, if the bylaw is not approved by every lower-tier municipality, of those who approved it, their populations must represent more than half the population of Durham Region (third majority). If any of these votes don’t pass, the bylaw can not be enacted.

It makes for a tight timeline, as any finalized ward boundaries must be in place by the end of 2017 if they are to be effective for the 2018 election, according to the Municipal Act.

The timing leaves the city approximately a year to complete the ward review study, something staff estimate could take anywhere between six and 12 months.

For that reason, the city is making sure everything is in place to initiate the review immediately after the region completes its composition review.

“We simply must get started regardless of all those unknowns,” Diamond says.

Most recently, council approved the criteria for the review and have authorized staff to look for a consultant to assist with the review. The process has an estimated $75,000 budget.

When the process begins

Looking at the last system, Oshawa was divided into seven wards – one covered the majority of the south end, another covered the mostly rural land in the north and the remaining were a patchwork throughout the middle of the city.

While it’s unclear how many wards will exist following the review and what their boundaries will be, Mayor John Henry has said he would like to see something a little different.

The mayor says he wants the consultants to be studying the possibilities of having vertical boundaries stretching from the north to the south of the city.

“It gives elected individuals a chance to represent a cross-section of the city,” he says.

Any consultant retained by the city will be taking into a consideration a number of factors, including existing neighborhoods, natural boundaries, and making sure ward populations are effectively represented.

The public will also have the opportunity to comment before and after any proposed wards are created.