What's in a mandate? - Shawn Loughlin editorial
What is a government’s mandate? What should politicians be funding with taxpayers’ dollars? This age-old debate is at the heart of a democracy, but there will always be as many answers as there are citizens, which is why defining council’s mandate can be a dangerous exercise.
At last week’s North Huron budget meeting, for example, Councillor Chris Palmer said that council’s mandate was to pave the roads of East Wawanosh and to fix snowplows. With the diversity and complexity of a community, it’s hard to point to one, single mandate and say it’s more important than another.
Remember the Howson Dam conversations? A handful of Wingham residents wanted council to spend as much as $7 million to fix a dam so they could enjoy some time on the water. To them, a 126.6 per cent increase to the budget (Treasurer Donna White said one per cent of North Huron’s 2019 budget is $55,287) was worth it for a little “R&R” on the waves.
You might surmise then that those folks, for example, may not care about East Wawanosh roads or snowplow repairs.
Right now, Brussels residents are facing a community centre renovation and expansion expected to cost $4.5 million. While not on the tax bill, that’s a large cost that could divide residents. A parent of four hockey-playing children may see the project as a priority, while an older couple who hates sports may feel there are better ways to spend their money.
It all comes down to a resident’s priorities, activities and lifestyle.
Paving smooth, immaculate roads can really add value to a community. However, if there’s no reason to visit a community (or move there because it offers nothing of interest), those roads could prove to be a waste of money.
Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt and I have had numerous conversations about this mindset when it comes to governments providing funding to arts organizations like galleries, theatres or public art installations.
Some will argue that a government has no business pumping money into the arts, while others, like Garratt, will point out that not only do the arts help keep a community healthy, but they also have a very real economic impact on their communities as well. Nowhere is this more obvious than in a community like Blyth.
For the tens of thousands who come to Blyth every year, the Blyth Festival is important to them, but for Blythites who have lived their whole life in the village and never attended a show (I have spoken to such people, they exist), perhaps funding for the Festival isn’t atop their priority list for their government.
The creation of a “non-essential” tourist attraction can have a profound impact on a small community. Ask Blyth residents about Cowbell Brewing Company or Brussels residents about the Four Winds Barn. People visit and move to places for a myriad of reasons – to ignore the majority of them is a mistake. To forget you govern a community of nearly 5,000 individuals is a mistake.
No doubt budgeting for municipalities is getting harder every year and tough decisions have to be made, but the floor should always be left open for debate. To dictate the municipality’s priorities to ratepayers, without seeking any input from them could be a slippery slope. At what point are you imposing your priorities on ratepayers who may not share those exact same views?
North Huron Council has a full plate, so dictating priorities to a community in the first few months of a term might lose some crucial stock in the court of public opinion.