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County councillors eye future plan to appoint unelected warden

'I believe there’s common agreement that the role of the warden is something that requires a full-time dedicated person,' said Oro-Medonte Township mayor
2020-03-11 County JO-002
County of Simcoe council chambers. Jessica Owen/BarrieToday

County of Simcoe councillors are leaning toward increasing the size of county council by one member from 32 to 33 possibly starting next term.

During Tuesday’s council meeting, councillors considered recommendations from a governance committee report from earlier this month. Councillors voted to explore having a full-time warden solely dedicated to county business, who would be appointed by councillors rather than elected-at-large.

However, choosing to appoint rather than elect a warden goes against current legislation available to the County of Simcoe, so before ironing out any further details on the change, the county first needs permission from the province to proceed.

“Elected-at-large is the more diplomatic way, but the con to that is that smaller municipalities would be at a disadvantage, or that someone who was campaigning might not even campaign in smaller municipalities,” said Deputy Warden Lynn Dollin, who also serves as chair of the governance committee.

Currently, Simcoe County council is made up of 32 members: the mayor and deputy mayor of all 16 member municipalities get a seat at the table, with the warden and deputy warden positions elected from within those ranks.

Under the new model considered on Tuesday, the 32 members would still get a seat, however a warden would be appointed to represent them, voted upon by the 32 members.

Warden George Cornell said his impression was the appointment could follow a typical recruitment process, where there would be a proper job description, candidates would be screened in advance and the final candidates would be brought before council for presentation and selection. However, any new process for choosing a warden would still need to be finalized through council.

Wasaga Beach Deputy Mayor Sylvia Bray raised her concerns about appointing a leader.

“Appointing – in a democratic society – scares me,” said Wasaga Beach Deputy Mayor Sylvia Bray, and asked if there were other municipalities that had gone the appointment route when it came to their head of council.

Dollin said the regional municipalities of Peel, York, Niagara, and the District of Muskoka all appoint their head of council, and all had provincial legislation passed to allow them to appoint their head of council.

“I believe there’s common agreement that the role of the warden is something that requires a full-time dedicated person,” said Oro-Medonte Township mayor Harry Hughes, adding he believes county council should have a say in who the warden is, and having the person chosen through an election would negate that.

“The concern, for me, for (selecting a warden) at-large, is it’s really going to be the one that can raise the most money that will have the opportunity to win, because (Simcoe County) is bigger than any MP or MPP area,” said Midland Deputy Mayor Mike Ross. “To me, you’re not going to get the best person. You’re going to get the one who can raise the most money.”

Ramara Township Mayor Basil Clarke said he felt it was obvious that the role of warden should be its own full-time job, and it wasn’t fair to have the warden role filled by a mayor or deputy mayor from a member municipality. He also echoed Ross’s point about the cost of running a campaign.

“You’re looking at a $250,000 campaign to run for warden at-large. We are elected to represent the people. The warden’s job is to represent this council,” said Clarke. “I’m in support of us appointing our leader. This is our leader, and we need somebody to represent us.”

When voting on whether to explore appointing or electing a warden, councillors voted 30-2 in favour of appointing, with only Bradford West Gwillimbury Mayor Rob Keffer and Deputy Mayor James Leduc voting against the motion.

Further details on other logistics of the change, such as compensation, term limits and voting, have to wait until the county finds out from the province whether they’ll make the necessary legislative changes.

“We could be really wasting our time until we get this in front of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. He could give us a hard no, in which case there’s no sense in us getting into the weeds,” said Dollin. “I think that’s step one.”

Councillors also voted to decide whether the rest of council would be comprised of 16 members or 32.

“I’m 100 per cent for diversity. I think the size of council at 32 plus the warden, I will support,” said Ross. “I love the idea of having two members from a community. It’s nice to have that other person to back you up.”

“I don’t think reducing the size of county council will reduce the cost in any way,” said Bray.

Some members disagreed.

“I’m in agreement with lowering the number of seats on county council,” said Adjala-Tosorontio Township Deputy Mayor Bob Meadows. “Seventeen members is enough to make a decision on behalf of our municipalities. We’re looking for efficiencies.”

Overall, council was split on the issue, voting to keep the rest of council at 32 by a vote of 18-14, or a weighted vote of 69 to 62.

Upon approval of the overall framework, staff suggested holding a workshop or special meeting of council to receive members’ direct input on the various other applicable issues, such as weighted voting and appointment processes.

It’s been two years since the Progressive Conservative government tasked some of Ontario’s regional governments, including the County of Simcoe, with looking at reducing the size of their local councils.

In October 2019 after receiving a report on the matter from special advisors Michael Fenn and Ken Seiling, the provincial government announced that they would not be imposing any changes. At that time, they also indicated they would not be releasing the report to the public.

Despite that news, County of Simcoe council decided to continue looking at governance structure and service delivery to find efficiencies.

As part of the discussion, Collingwood Deputy Mayor Keith Hull suggested requesting the province provide the county with the recommendations contained for Simcoe County in the regional government review report.

Oro-Medonte Township Mayor Harry Hughes tabled a motion for the County of Simcoe to request the province release the report, which was passed unanimously by councillors.

Before any changes can happen in regards to the composition and size of Simcoe County council, triple majority approval is required.

Triple majority approval requires:

  • A majority of all votes on county council must be cast in favour of the change;
  • A majority of the councils of all 16 lower-tier municipalities must have passed resolutions consenting to the change; and
  • The population of the lower-tier municipalities that pass resolutions consenting to the change must form the majority of electors in the County of Simcoe.

A public meeting must also occur.

Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 12 years of experience to her role as regional reporter for Village Media, primarily covering County of Simcoe matters, education and features.
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