At a special council meeting on Thursday night, Guelph City Council will vote on their own make-up for the 2022-26 term. The staff recommendation is to change council composition to eight full-time councillors, one from each of eight new wards, plus the mayor, but two electoral reform advocacy groups want to pump the brakes on the council make-up in the wake of their own poll that confirms voters want the status quo.
“We figured that if we were quick we could do a phone poll, and it would be interesting to compare the two because the polling company calls random people as opposed to the city engagement process where people kind of self select themselves to participate,” Democracy Guelph’s Kevin Bowman told Guelph Politico. “We thought it might be interesting to compare those results, and the results of the telephone poll were consistent with what the engagement process said.”
Democracy Guelph and Fair Vote Guelph commissioned a poll by the firm Strategic Directions, which called 759 randomly selected people in Guelph on Tuesday and Wednesday. According to the results, 51 per cent want to keep two members per ward, and 58 per cent think that Guelph should still elect 12 councillors total.
According to the public consultation done by Watson & Associates, which is presented in their report to council, 52.7 per cent of people want more than one councillor for each ward, while 49.1 per cent want to keep the council composition the same as it is right now with 12 members.
“Guelph City Council needs to respect what citizens are telling them,” said Fair Vote Canada Guelph’s Ken MacKay in a joint statement with Bowman, who confirmed that MacKay will be presenting these finds as part of his delegation Thursday night. “Guelph residents like having two local members representing them. Dual member wards been working well for voters in Guelph for 30 years. Guelph residents are clearly saying they want to keep them.”
The justification for going to eight ward represented by one councillor each is multifaceted. According to Watson & Associates, Guelph is the only municipality among it’s single-tier municipal comparators that has a system of two councillors per ward, and while those cities all have between 10 and 12 wards each, only Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa currently employ full-time councillors.
“The thing is we just don’t have any evidence that there’s a public appetite, or desire for, drastic changes,” Bowman said. “If there was evidence that people were undecided, that they wanted some kind of change, then I would feel differently. But the last time we changed city council we didn’t touch it again for more than 30 years, so if you’re going to make any significant changes to council, you better be sure that you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
Bowman also said that he and his group have no objections to the call for full-time councillors since nearly 49 per cent of respondents to the City’s engagement said that they would like to see council move in that direction.
“Full-time versus part-time is kind of a distraction, what we should be talking about is what’s adequate compensation so that nobody is refusing to run for council, or think about running for council, because of financial reasons,” Bowman added. “The voters will decide whether that person is putting in enough time or not.”
Council is hard pressed to make decisions about the future of council before the end of 2021 because the ward boundaries can be appealed to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT). Bowman and his group is asking council to reconsider the staff recommendation of eight councillors and continue public engagement on council composition while work continues on reviewing the ward boundaries, which is the next phase of the process.
“The only aspect of this process that needs to be settled before the next election is the ward boundaries because that can be appealed, so we want to get that settled,” Bowman said.
“I think that council should accept the fact that they don’t have the mandate from the public for these particular recommendations, but there is also an opportunity here to make some changes to make council better,” Bowman added. “It could be that after the discussion we end up with eight wards and full-time councillors, but the current evidence doesn’t support that.”
The special meeting of council is Thursday night at 6 pm, and you can follow live coverage here on Guelph Politico.