By Ian Pattison

Did Thunder Bay city councillor Peng You make the proposal to trim council’s number on his own, or was it a product of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party to try to give its local candidate a leg up on the competition in advance of the 2022 election?

Either way, the rookie councillor has revived a common theory among council critics: Fewer members means more efficiency and less cost. But is that true? And is a plebiscite in next year’s municipal election (two elections in the space of four months -- groan!) the way to decide, as You suggests?

Council had already asked for a report on reform ideas -- its size and composition -- and agreed to delay any consideration until after the election. Coun. You supported that. Why the change of heart now?

At a meeting this week, he suggested asking if voters support reducing the council from 13 to nine and doing away with the ward system leaving eight at-large councillors and the mayor. Councillors found this too specific and liked Coun. Trevor Giertuga’s wording instead: “Do you support a reduction in city council composition?”

Mayor Bill Mauro supported the idea of a smaller council that would get to the heart of matters faster than this council does. (The debate lasted till 1 a.m.) Has Mauro considered that more work will fall on fewer councillors? Members already serve on multiple committees. A quorum could be more difficult to achieve.

Has You considered that under his proposal, a councillor has only to convince four members to support an idea versus six today? That sounds like worse, not better governance.

In the end, a majority voted to receive a report on the implications of reducing their numbers. But there is no timeline and ultimately, no guarantee that anything will be accomplished since council is talking about a plebiscite, which is non-binding, versus a referendum which is legally binding.

Part of You’s reasoning is to spark a debate about the ward system. In a letter to this newspaper, former mayoral candidate Shane Judge made the case for You’s idea: “Our taxes are too high. Our bureaucracy is too big. Council is failing to maintain existing infrastructure while wasting money on dubious legacy projects. The place to begin to slay the beast? Start with council, the head of the dragon.”

Former Thunder Bay city clerk John Hannam replied to the letter: “Mr. Judge assumes that a smaller council will somehow be a better one, and lead to the perceived ills he lists being solved. I wonder where the evidence is for that assumption?”

Judge’s letter continued: “I know that many are fed up with the unfairness of the ward system. Politicians who received only a couple of thousand votes should not have such sway over the direction of the entire city.”

Ward systems can become parochial, and ward boundaries can lose validity in municipalities with rapid growth. Thunder Bay hasn’t grown in size but it has certainly grown out in different directions. There hasn’t been a ward boundary review since 1978.

In an at-large system there is a risk that a majority of candidates get elected that live in the same neighbourhood, leaving areas of a city feeling unrepresented. This happened in Vancouver in the early 2000’s when eight of 12 councillors were from the same area.

The ward system is designed to ensure neighbourhood concerns are factored into questions affecting the city as a whole. Should there be more ward councillors than at-large, as things are now (7-5)? That is a valid question, but doing away with ward councillors entirely would have implications for each area of the city.

Niagara Falls tried going all at-large in 2006. A review of the election showed that campaign spending by winning candidates increased from around $8,000 in 2003 to roughly $27,000 in 2006, in order to advertise and campaign throughout the city. This made elections more of a rich man’s game, limiting access to participating in local government.

Kitchener was forced by the province to reduce its council from 11 to seven in 2000. There followed a ward boundary review that ultimately whetted the community’s appetite to return to a larger council. A bylaw changing the composition of the council back to 11 with a 10-ward system came into effect for their 2010 election

While Thunder Bay is not the first city to consider trying to do more with less representation, those that have pursued it are mostly making it up as they go along.

On the question of cost, the total amount paid to members of council this year is just under $700,000 with a base rate around $45,000. (Coun. You, incidentally, claimed the most in expenses last year.) For context, the 2021 city budget is north of $200 million.

When Ontario Premier Doug Ford threatened to use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause in 2018 to halve the size of Toronto city council he said it was to reduce “the size and cost of government.” Even the right-wing Fraser Institute said there was little to corroborate Ford’s reasoning.

People were led away in handcuffs during fierce demonstrations. Even the right-wing Fraser Institute said there was little to corroborate Ford’s reasoning.

Ford’s predecessor on the slash-and-burn trail was former Tory premier Mike Harris who forced amalgamation on a number of communities. Oliver Paipoonge and Greenstone are among the products of these amalgamations. The new municipalities would be more efficient and less costly, Harris said, and taxpayers would benefit from lower costs and lower taxes.

“A wide body of literature shows that in amalgamated municipalities across Ontario . . . government spending per household increased in the major areas of municipal public management,” according to a 2015 Fraser Institute report. The analysis generally found significant increases in property taxes, municipal staff salary costs and long-term debt.

Nine months after Ford reduced Toronto’s council to 25 members from 44, a Toronto Star analysis found that while some aspects of official business appeared to be chugging along at a faster clip, councillors felt more stretched to address residents’ concerns along with broader city issues, while residents felt more disconnected from their representatives, and, as a result, City Hall itself. Meanwhile, the cut has failed to reduce costs at nearly the level Ford claimed it would.

So while Coun. Peng You may wish to make a splash with voters in what may well be a sincere effort to save the city and its taxpayers money, there is little evidence that the exercise will produce the results he may want.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.