By Mike Baker
A majority of Dysart et al council felt this was an inopportune time to get into a thorough review of the municipality’s ward boundaries, that despite one councillor’s claim that the current divisions have “glaring issues.”
Township clerk Mallory Bishop brought a report on the issue to council on Feb. 9. She stated any review process would take between six months to a year to complete, and would require extensive input from the community.
The current borders were drawn up following the original amalgamation of Dysart, according to Deputy Mayor Pat Kennedy. The issue was last considered back in 2015, when Dysart’s previous council decided against launching a review.
Despite being such an important matter, Bishop informed council there was nothing within the Municipal Act guiding when a municipality should explore the possibility of changing its ward boundaries, noting it was entirely at the discretion of the sitting council.
Most members felt, with the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, that this particular discussion should be delayed.
“We should take a look at this once life starts to settle back down to something even close to normal,” Kennedy said.
Mayor Andrea Roberts noted that if council were to hold off now, the debate likely would not take place during this current term. The next municipal election is slated for Oct. 24, 2022.
Even so, she agreed that, given the present circumstances, it would be prudent of council to leave this issue alone.
“It’s a big undertaking, and we have an awful lot on our plate right now and COVID-19 is making everything that much harder and that much more stressful,” Roberts said. “Unless we had a glaring issue, I wouldn’t suggest this is something we would make as a priority right now.”
Ward 4 Coun. John Smith didn’t share that opinion.
He pointed towards the statistics provided by Bishop, which highlighted a huge discrepancy in voter population between the township’s five wards, as evidence that Dysart does in fact have a glaring issue that he feels should be immediately rectified. Wards 2 and 4 alone make up around 55 per cent of the total voter count across Dysart, based on data the township collected during the last municipal election.
During that vote, Ward 1 had 1,608 registered voters; Ward 2 had 3,886; Ward 3 had 1,873; Ward 4 had 3,522; and Ward 5 had 2,637.
Bishop’s report noted that effective representation, as set out by the Supreme Court of Canada, states that population should not be the only factor in determining boundaries and that other factors such as natural geography, community history, community interests and minority representation should also be taken into consideration.
While Smith acknowledged that point, he argued a ruling put in place by the Supreme Court in 1991 should supersede it.
“The Supreme Court did emphasize [during that ruling] the importance of the first priority, which is relative parity of voting power,” Smith said. “A system that dilutes one citizen’s vote unduly as compared to another citizen’s vote runs the risk of providing inadequate representation for citizens who vote.”
He added, “They can never be equal – people die, and people move, but Elections Canada took that ruling from the Supreme Court and, at the time, concluded that population count from district to district should never vary by more than 25 per cent… Four out of our five wards are more than 25 per cent variance to the average of around 2,700 residents per ward.
“It seems to me that kicking this can down the road is just perpetuating a problem that hasn’t just existed here for a year or two, this is a problem that has existed [dating back to at least 2006]. We have a long-term problem here. Doing nothing is just not acceptable… If we’re going to be living by the rules of democracy, representation by population and so forth, we need to act on this,” Smith concluded.
Ward 2 Coun. Larry Clarke suggested it might be worth holding off on this discussion until Dysart receives information from the federal 2021 census, set to take place later this year.
Kennedy feels there’s another factor that needs to be considered before Dysart even thinks about a review.
“The other elephant in the room here is county council. They have to determine whether they’re going to move forward with amalgamation,” Kennedy said. “You may only have one vote here in Dysart if that goes through.”
Council opted to simply receive the report as information, essentially delaying any review.