'At-large' deputy-reeve is a bad idea - Denny Scott editorial
It would be nice if I could state “let it never be said I hold a grudge,” but I live in reality where I do hold grudges. Some might say I’m adept or even a master at holding grudges. However, let it never be said I don’t give credit where credit is due - like some North Huron councillors who pointed out the flaw in going to an “at-large” deputy-reeve position in North Huron.
Even while some of those same council members continue to try to spin their way out of their part in North Huron Council’s decision to not fly the pride flag, I will give credit where it’s due: standing up against this idea is for the best of the community.
For those of you who may have missed last week’s newspaper (or just missed the story in it), a staff report tabled at North Huron’s June 21 meeting recommended making the deputy-reeve position one voted at-large, the same as the reeve. That means that all wards would vote on the position.
There are two problems with this: first, the impact that change would have on the composition of council and the representation of the three wards could be devastating. Second, the issue came out of the blue (and trust me, it did).
I’ll deal with the second issue first: as incredibly disheartening as this statement would be to my 12-year-old self, I’m a professional municipal council meeting watcher. When I say this caught me by surprise, just like it blindsided Councillor Chris Palmer, you can likely be sure it wasn’t brought up at any recent council meetings.
As a matter of fact, as was explained by Reeve Bernie Bailey (in the meeting and the story), the issue was originally part of council’s five-year plan, which was laid out three years ago. At the time, reviewing the composition of council was a mid-level goal, with a deadline of 2021.
I’d guess the only two council members who seemed ready to talk about the whole thing were Bailey and Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip who, as members of a committee that set out council’s meeting agendas, likely had some knowledge of it beforehand.
So despite Bailey thinking no one should be surprised by the report coming forward, I would say that giving a direction to review council composition and having a divisive recommendation brought forward three years later can be pretty surprising.
The main problem, however, is that moving our (because I am a North Huron ratepayer) deputy-reeve position to an at-large position will potentially give one ward more power than the others.
Councillor Kevin Falconer pointed this out and he was completely right in doing so. Why? Because the current council composition is balanced. North Huron Council has two representatives from each of its three wards: Wingham, Blyth and East Wawanosh. In addition, the reeve, the seventh council member, is elected at-large. The deputy-reeve is elected, by council, from among those six councillors.
That’s really the only way that each ward could have fair representation in a municipality with three very different wards. Why? Because no one ward can seize voting power if all members are at the table. Under the current organization, Bailey is from Wingham, meaning there are, potentially, three people who could vote in Wingham’s best interests over those of other wards or against the interest of the other wards. That means that, if that kind of vote ever did take place, the other wards’ representatives would outnumber Bailey, Seip and Councillor Paul Heffer.
I’m not saying this has happened or ever will happen, it’s just a risk associated with the changes being proposed.
While the best person for the job should earn the reeve or deputy-reeve position, the reality is that Wingham outvotes Blyth and East Wawanosh combined by a large margin (using 2016 numbers, there would be 1,998 voters between Blyth and East Wawanosh and 2,934 in Wingham).
If the deputy-reeve position went at-large and council just increased its size by one member, that would mean up to four representatives could be from the same ward and could force a tie vote against the four representatives from the other two wards.
If council dropped to five members, another option that was discussed at the meeting, that would mean there could be three members from one ward (reeve, deputy-reeve and councillor), which would completely outnumber the other two council members.
The current organization of council is the only way that makes sure that the three wards have their own say. Falconer was right in saying that, if the deputy-reeve position is changed to at-large, it will result in a change to the composition of council, so the entire issue needs to be considered in a holistic manner.
So like I said, just because I disagree with a council member one week about an easily-bypassable flag policy doesn’t mean I can’t also point out when they’re doing the right thing, like making sure this decision isn’t made just because it was recommended by staff.