NH Council to consider dissolving wards, council size, at-large deputy-reeve
BY DENNY SCOTT
A recommended motion that would see North Huron’s Deputy-Reeve be elected at large in the next municipal election blindsided some council members while causing others to feel the cart was being put before the horse.
During North Huron Council’s Monday night meeting, as part of a previously-unannounced review of council composition, Clerk Carson Lamb recommended that council vote to elect the Deputy-Reeve position at large during the 2022 election.
The decision was to be the first in a four-step process outlined by Lamb, which would see council decide during its July 5 meeting whether council would decide on the size of council, followed by the structure of council (whether or not council should maintain a ward system). Finally, council would then have to decide whether or not to change the ward system if it had decided to keep it.
Lamb explained that deciding on whether or not the deputy-reeve is chosen from existing council members will dictate future discussions about size, and explained that council could make the change to the deputy-reeve position, if they so choose, as there is no way to appeal the decision.
Lamb then pointed out that most of Huron County has the deputy-reeve position chosen at-large, with North Huron, Huron East and Morris-Turnberry being the exceptions. He then said Morris-Turnberry’s councillors are elected at-large, instead of through a ward system, so he considered that position to be filled at-large as well.
Lamb then established the purpose of the deputy-reeve position, saying there isn’t a real description of the job in provincial documents, save that municipalities can appoint someone to stand in for the reeve or mayor if they aren’t able to perform their duty. He pointed out that the deputy-reeve position is “quite demanding”, which is illustrated by North Huron paying the position a higher honorarium than council members.
Lamb then presented his staff recommendation to change the position to be elected at-large, pointing to a recent problem in Kincardine where the head of council had resigned, but the deputy was an acclaimed council member, meaning the council and the community may have been led by an individual who was never technically elected.
Lamb then presented a comparison with other western Ontario municipalities with populations between 2,000 and 8,000 people, showing that most municipalities with under 5,000 residents didn’t have wards and/or elected their deputy at-large.
Finally, Lamb went over some facts and figures regarding restructuring council to prepare council members for the July 5 meeting, including the fact that, by dropping to seven council members, a savings of $26,346.52 would be seen annually.
Reeve Bernie Bailey said his position and Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip’s positions were very busy, and Seip may not have known that when he let his name stand for the position, however other council members were not interested in making the deputy-reeve position one elected at-large.
Councillor Kevin Falconer pointed out that making the position an at-large position would immediately make it a popularity competition with Wingham residents at a distinct advantage. He pointed to the populations of the wards (as of 2016, Wingham had 59.4 per cent of North Huron’s 4,932 residents, with East Wawanosh and Blyth each having just over 20 per cent each).
“We could end up with two councillors for the Wingham Ward, and a Reeve and a Deputy-Reeve from the Wingham Ward,” he said. “Then council wouldn’t be balanced.”
He said if council chose to make the position an at-large position, it would force them to make further changes to council to keep it balanced.
Bailey disagreed, saying that right now North Huron’s Reeve and Deputy-Reeve are from Wingham, but for the previous three terms, the municipality’s Reeve was Neil Vincent, who was from East Wawanosh. He went on to say he found it “hard to believe any councillors would want to see harm done to any part of our society.”
Councillor Chris Palmer was very upset about the situation, wondering what the driving force behind the staff recommendation was. He felt things worked very well and he wouldn’t vote to change it. Bailey later explained the issue was part of council’s strategic plan, which had been set three years earlier, and had a due date of this year, which is why staff had pursued it.
Palmer, however, said comparing North Huron to other municipalities was a mistake, as the community was unique. He also said that he could see East Wawanosh residents wanting to “break away” if the change was made. “It’s that serious,” he said.
Like Falconer, he felt if the change was made, council would be forced to go to five members: a reeve and deputy-reeve voted at large and three ward representatives.
“All of them could come from Wingham then,” he said of the two at-large positions, which would create a three-on-two mentality. “Then what happens to the voices of Blyth and East Wawanosh? It’s so much safer to keep the wards.”
He said the report was “lopsided” and didn’t paint a true picture of what the municipality looked like. Lamb, in his own defence, said he followed the statistics from other municipalities, and his report was “purely based on comparators.”
Seip said he had heard good arguments against the issue, but said status quo can’t be maintained just because Palmer said it should be kept that way.
“Just saying [that] is irresponsible,” he said. “That is my opinion.”
Falconer asked if there were any kind of promises made about representation when the three communities - Blyth, East Wawanosh and Wingham - amalgamated. Staff could find nothing in the documents regarding amalgamation, however Lamb said he couldn’t see any provincial document including such promises.
Palmer once again said the system they have works and the amount of money that could be saved by dropping to five members isn’t enough of a reason to change council. He also said that, by having a recommended motion of making the deputy-reeve an at-large position, it felt like he was “fighting an uphill battle” to try and have a fair and balanced discussion about it.
Councillor Anita van Hittersum took exception with the comparators being limited to municipalities with 5,000 residents or less, saying that North Huron has been growing since 2016 and still is, meaning that seven representatives may be the right number for the municipality.
After more discussion, council voted to defer the decision until July 5, when other issues could be discussed.