Wednesday, January 4, 2006

London Free Press OpEd on ward issue

There's a pretty good editorial in the London Free Press today — yes, I am pleasantly and occasionally surprised — about the recent OMB order to redistrict London's seven two-councillor wards into fourteen single-councillor wards.

Ward issue gets blurrier

The affront to democracy of the Ontario Municipal Board’s autocratic imposition of a new ward map for London was punctuated by the timing of the order — on the last business day of the year. After issuing a decision Nov. 22 backing Imagine London’s plan for doubling the number of city wards from seven to 14, OMB member Douglas Gates was here Dec. 22 for a follow-up hearing. He concluded it by announcing he would draw up the ward map himself.

The brouhaha over London’s ward system has been farcical for some time now, and local officials have little to brag about. City council not only failed to act on an Imagine London petition calling for 14 wards and the abolition of board of control, but rejected the results of two ballot questions in the 2003 election. On those questions, 76 per cent of voters backed a smaller council and 55 per cent wanted to abolish board of control.

The snub of Imagine London opened the door for the group to pursue its case to the OMB. Those not liking council’s decision on the 2003 ballot questions will have to wait until this November’s election to get their day in court.

No matter how the blame is allotted, the bottom line is the same. Principles of sound democratic governance have been circumvented. A job that cried out for broad public input was, through a series of misadventures, ultimately left to an out-of-town bureaucrat. He started with a 14-ward map drawn up by city staff months ago as one of the proposals for change, and altered it to address Imagine London concerns that communities of interest, such as Old South or Old East Village, be kept intact within their respective wards.

No political will has ever been demonstrated here for opening a thorough consultative process on electoral change. University of Western Ontario political science professor Andy Sancton says he was shocked at how little engagement there was on the ballot questions by incumbent councillors in the 2003 campaign. Sancton, one of three people asked by Gates to participate in redrawing the ward map, declined because he rightly objected to doing so in the absence of public participation. Asked how best London might move toward a democratic solution, Sancton said one possibility could be the enactment of something like a City of London ward act by the Ontario legislature. Or, it could be a cabinet order-in-council setting up some kind of body to hear the views of council and Londoners. This group could send its findings to cabinet for implementation. But Sancton, a municipal government expert, said neither scenario is likely to happen. Queen’s Park is unlikely to get involved.

It’s worth noting that the only issue the OMB addressed — ward boundaries — had nothing do with the two ballot questions.

Council’s non-decision on the petition, together with its spurning of the ballot measures, has led to an arbitrary ruling that satisfies only a small minority of the populace.
The editorial correctly casts some of the blame for the debacle on city council. By limiting debate on the subject of electoral structure, the city's defense of the current structure seems nothing more than reactionary. In fact, there are very sound reasons for defending the current structure as the most effective for democracy — a subject which I hope to address in the next few days — and an open and public debate is the best way to demonstrate this. Fortunately, debate is not confined to the corridors and chambers of city hall. Unfortunately, effective debate was not heard by the OMB.