Ward sizes an election issue

 By Andrew Dreschel

Re-drawing Hamilton’s ward boundaries may not be top of mind right now, but that should change when the civic election really gets rolling in a few weeks.

Like it or not, the new city council elected in October is going to have to deal with the tension-charged issue of fair representation at City Hall sooner rather than later.

That’s because in 2012, under pressure from community advocates, the current council committed $260,000 to reviewing the size of the city’s 15 wards in 2015.

That means mayoral and council candidates need to stake out a position on the sensitive subject that has the potential to pit the inner city against suburban and rural areas.

The problem is simple enough: Some inner city wards have two or three times the population of outlying wards, but no greater voice or vote at the council table.

But some fear realigning boundaries or creating new wards to redress the democratic imbalance could shift political power to the inner city at the expense of the suburbs. That’s a recipe for political and philosophical differences.

Mayoral candidate Crystal Lavigne, for example, doesn’t support redrawing wards to represent population distribution.

“I believe it is a councillor’s job to represent the people in their respective ridings accordingly, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that the size of the ward, whether by land mass or people mass, is the most effective way of doing so.”

Mayoral candidate Fred Eisenberger, on the other hand, fully supports creating greater “equity between wards.”

But he stresses the importance of not monkeying with distinct communities of interest. Rather than rejigging “the whole,” he says it’s possible to create another inner city ward.

“It might be fair to look at the Mountain and say does this warrant an additional representative because of the population base.”

Certainly the Mountain is where the starkest imbalances occur. With a population of about 64,000, Ward 7 on the central Mountain is the biggest of the city’s 15 wards. Ward 8 on the west Mountain is No. 2 with about 53,000.

That means on a per-capita basis, residents in Wards 7 and 8 are vastly under-represented compared to, say, the 17,000 in Flamborough’s Ward 14 or the 27,000 in Ward 13 in Dundas.

Previous councils haven’t been eager to tackle the issue for the obvious reason it’s bound to raise temperatures at City Hall and fears in the community. Taking its lead from the previous council, the current council tried to put it off entirely until it was forced to address the controversy by a community petition.

If the petition had been ignored, under the Municipal Act electors had the right to appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board. Though councillors still stalled on a review, they set aside funding for the new council with the goal of having changes in place for the 2018 election.

Interestingly, Eisenberger’s campaign manager, Chris Cutler, was one of the key community activists. Eisenberger says he hasn’t discussed the issue with Cutler, but he clearly recognizes fairness demands some action.

So do other mayoral candidates. For example, Michael Baldasaro supports a review. Councillor Brian McHattie voted for it in 2012. So did Brad Clark.

Any politician who is paying attention knows that based on previous OMB hearings, voter parity is seen as key principle for effective council representation. But the board also recognizes the importance of community history, interests and geography.

That suggests it’s very unlikely a review would recommend taking a chainsaw to Hamilton’s ward boundaries. But voters who care about fair and balanced representation might want to ask which candidates in the fall election are prepared to wield a scalpel.

Andrew Dreschel’s commentary appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. adreschel@thespec.com 905-526-3495 @AndrewDreschel

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