Madawaska Valley post-amalgamation wards
In Part 1, I proposed a return to the ward system which I felt at the time would be the best way to ensure voter representation in the Township of Madawaska Valley. It only generated two comments online, but it prompted several visits to my porch and some very good conversations. So I achieved my purposes which included prompting conversation, probing some disturbing issues and examining our voting system to ensure the best-possible version of democracy for citizens of the Madawaska Valley. What has surprised me is that, given more information and wise counsel, I have changed my mind.
The Township of Madawaska Valley does not need a ward-system.
Populism is the problem
In TMV’s last municipal election campaign a special interest group hijacked the agenda and created our current political quagmire. That group exploited populist and localist sentiments and politicked masterfully to run a slate of candidates, create a council that answered to their political demands, and to make their community the focus of most of the municipality’s business. As a result significant groups of electors are ignored and “inter-village friction” has become synonymous with the Madawaska Valley.
I naively assumed that the at-large system of voting enabled this.
Rock and talk
One of the visitors who stopped by to rock and talk on the porch was former councillor Sylvie Yantha who began his political career on the Village of Barry’s Bay Council replacing my father who died in 1998. Sylvie initiated the motion to eliminate the ward system in 2004 and fourteen years later is confident it was the right choice. He reminded me that the previous ward system carved the village of Barry’s Bay into three and as a result village electors didn’t have very much power. Obviously, I had more research to do, so I looked carefully at the ward system we used to have.
TMV’s post-amalgamation wards
From the statistics presented at the OMB hearings in 2004-2005, I learned the composition of the wards:
- Ward 1 — 2234 electors (Barry’s Bay 410, Radcliffe 0, Sherwood Jones and Burns 1824)
- Ward 2 — 1045 electors (Barry’s Bay 304, Radcliffe 24, Sherwood Jones and Burns 717)
- Ward 3 — 1638 electors (Barry’s Bay 0, Radcliffe 1512, Sherwood Jones and Burns 126)
- Ward 4 — 2071 electors (Barry’s Bay 461, Radcliffe 874, Sherwood Jones and Burns 736)
An inequitable distribution of electors
Even a layman can see the problem with that arrangement. Those wards certainly weren’t balanced in terms of population. Barry’s Bay provided less than 30% of the electors in each of the three wards in which it was included. Radcliffe electors comprised 92% of the electors in Ward 3 and 42% of Ward 4. Sherwood Jones and Burns electors formed 82% of Ward 1, 69% of Ward 2 and 35% of Ward 4. When the Ontario Municipal Board ruled in favour of the by-law it noted there was inequitable distribution of electors.
But what about the assumption that Barry’s Bay had an unfair advantage and could have elected three out of the four counsellors? With the village divided in such a fashion, it was impossible for anyone from Barry’s Bay to be elected without considerable support from rural voters. What? Rural voters were electing Barry’s Bay candidates? Wow. At that moment, Sylvie’s point sank in. The ward system wasn’t necessary. It actually weakened the influence of Barry’s Bay’s voters by dividing them into small groups.
Inter-village friction – I almost fell for it
I have a multi-generational knowledge of the Madawaska Valley and I have written previously of localism, but honestly, I was surprised over the last five or six years to discover “inter-village friction.” I’m not making this term up, you can find it in The Path Forward: The Township of Madawaska Valley’s 2015-2019 Community-Based Strategic Plan. The section Understanding MV’s Strengths and Challenges addresses “inter-village friction”:
Rivalry between different villages within Madawaska Valley (i.e. Barry’s Bay, Wilno
and Combermere) is rooted in the distribution of resources, services and programs,
wherein changes to these distributions may lead to resentment in these villages. (19)
I had never heard of this term before I read the strategic plan. I had never considered this to be a problem until the CAC’s campaign and the current council’s shenanigans made me feel that “townies” were targets.
The strategic plan suggests that to instill greater confidence in municipal government, TMV “return to the ward system to ensure rural representation.” I know this document was written through a wide consultation with residents, but I thought it was strange that a council elected at-large would want to eliminate that very system. Then I reread the part about rivalry and resentment.
It was rivalry and resentment that motivated the CAC-types, and ultimately got this council elected. I am impressed by what they achieved in their grass-roots politicking, but that’s a lot of work. It might actually be easier to keep Barry’s Bay down by dismembering it in a ward system.
I almost fell for it.
A new target and a flurry of letters
The ugly truth is that an anti-Barry’s Bay sentiment has developed in the municipality in the last decade and members of the current council are pandering to it.
This acrimonious political situation began with the waste-water and wells issue, was nurtured by the Citizen’s Action Committee, and enabled by some members of the current council. After the election of 2014, it didn’t take long for the sights to shift from wells and the waste-water to Barry’s Bay’s iconic visitor centre, museum and gallery – the Railway Station. Municipal assets located in Barry’s Bay seem to be preferred targets.
From late 2015 and continuing well into 2016 two councillors encouraged, and the mayor failed to curb, disruptive jeering and cheering at council meetings by residents who were targeting the Station. That was followed by a letter campaign. For the purposes of this article I have read all of these. 53 pro-station letters and emails were received at the township, but they were eclipsed by 29 form letters opposing the station collected by opponents and presented to council. There were reports that some vulnerable residents were badgered in their homes to sign these letters. Actually 153 anti-station letters had been received but only 29 had legible signatures and identification as ratepayers. (Another 110 had legible signatures but had no identification; 24 were illegible; and 8 were duplicates.) But, numbers don’t matter when you are dealing with populist politics, just impressions and emotions which can be stirred up and exploited.
The price of a coffee and the Station’s fate
At a public meeting in May 2016 Paul Nopper demonstrated to hundreds of citizens that the cost of keeping the Station open year-round was comparable to three coffees from Tim Horton’s per $100K of assessment. In light of this and overwhelming evidence of the benefits to the community, council voted unanimously to keep it open year-round. Nevertheless, station- hostile councillors “double-doubled” down and their campaign continued — a shot at “wine-sippers” here and “elites” there — until all remaining staff (including Nopper) were gone, programs were eliminated, economic opportunities were lost, the community was divided and the mayor told everyone to “take a chill pill.”
In a discussion about the hate-on for the station and the havoc it has created, one local wag recently joked:
Easy fix. Just move the Station to Combermere. You’ll see. No more problems.
Anti-Barry’s Bay bias
This trip down memory-lane leads to the conclusion that there is an anti-Barry’s Bay bias on the current TMV Council. Two votes plus one.
No doubt some readers will accuse me of creating division by pointing this out. Division is not my intent. But dealing with a real and dangerous problem is my intent.
We are one community, comparable to a family, and like so many families we have our own particular brand of dysfunction. Right now that dysfunction is damaging us. The internecine strife has already affected us economically, socially and culturally. Unless we stop it, it will continue to weaken us. We won’t become stronger by remaining silent and sweeping the localism, rivalry and resentment under the rug. We have to face this inter-village friction and the election campaign is the best time to start talking. If we don’t, the sparks from inter-village friction could destroy whatever good remains.
So if not a ward system what is the solution?
According to Sylvie Yantha, we shouldn’t change anything:
Leave it the way it is, and it will eventually work itself out. Amalgamation will take an entire generation to work.
All things considered, I have to agree with Sylvie. I have read the pros and cons of the ward and at-large voting systems. There are good reasons on both sides. I realize that 87% of municipalities in Ontario vote at-large and our southern neighbour, Hastings Highlands, just had their application for a ward system refused by the OMB after spending about $40,000 for a study. I have also put a lot of thought into how a special-interest group hijacked our agenda.
Inform yourself, get involved and vote strategically
My public experience exploring at-large and ward voting systems and determining whether or not they enabled the political nonsense we have had to endure for the last four years is a pattern each voter in the Township of Madawaska Valley might want to follow.
If you want to be fairly represented – and not manipulated – educate yourself on the issues. And don’t be afraid to change your mind when the facts are presented to you. Apprise yourself of all of the information that is available, attend all-candidates meetings, ask the tough questions and, most importantly, focus on the vision of the candidates. What is their vision for the whole municipality? Progress or division? Development or stagnation? The common good or special (self) interests? Celebration of culture, heritage and recreation or a sterile status quo?
Get involved in campaigns, put up lawn signs, encourage your neighbours to vote, and encourage your friends who may not be permanent residents to get informed and to mail in their votes. The at-large system didn’t enable a special-interest group to seize TMV’s agenda. Voter apathy did. If you feel under-represented or not represented at all, get involved. Take back your franchise. If CAC can do it, so can you. Just remember, you don’t have to divide the community or squash other voices to have your voice heard.
Also vote strategically. Just because you CAN vote for four councillors doesn’t mean you SHOULD vote for four councillors. (Hopefully we will have more than four candidates by Friday July 27.) Vote for the one or two you think will do the best job.
Who has my vote?
As for me, any candidate for mayor or council with the guts to discuss and tackle the difficult issues we are facing – representation, inter-village friction, rivalry and resentment, localism, special interest groups, legal fees, code of conduct, accountability and transparency – has my vote on October 22, 2018.
About the author: Descended from railroaders and hotel keepers, Mark Woermke has deep roots in the Madawaska Valley. A writer, historian, performer, gardener and teacher, Mark also blogs at https://prussianhillsblog.wordpress.com and manages the group Renfrew County Germans on Facebook. The views expressed in this article are his own.