All those years ago


There’s a saying historians love: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Oddly enough, the more you research the past, the more you’re impressed by how little things have changed; people remain the same regardless of their time in history. This can be comforting, knowing that we can relate to our past and their ways and thoughts. But there’s times when similarities with the past can be troubling, whether in international politics, or local government.

Way back in 1857, the people of the little village of Kemptville (or, rather, the leadership of that place) decided their future would be brighter if they separated from the wider municipality of Oxford-on-Rideau, and so they did. It took a special piece of legislation to make the split legal, as Kemptville had a smaller population than was required for an independent body – it was less than 1,000 residents. Nevertheless, the new Village set up a municipal council to run the affairs of those 1,000 souls, consisting of a Reeve and four Councillors. 

When the three entities of Kemptville, Oxford-on-Rideau, and South Gower were amalgamated in 1997, each of the three had a council made up of a Reeve and/or Mayor, and four Councillors. But the decision was made at that time that the new municipality, soon to be known as North Grenville, would have the same size Council as each of the preceding municipalities: a Mayor and four Councillors. It was believed at the time, amazingly, that the new North Grenville would be able to do with a smaller staff and the Council of five would suffice for the increased size and population of the new municipality. 

Over the 26 years since amalgamation, the population has increased substantially. In fact, it has been widely reported that our population has doubled in that time, and continues to increase. The number of staff has similarly grown significantly. But the size of Council hasn’t. It has been suggested a number of times in the past decades that an increase in the number of Councillors would make sense, given these increases in population, not to mention the number of complexity of the issues dealt with by Council.

These suggestions have been rejected for a number of reasons. Some say we can’t afford another two or three Councillors, despite the relatively small cost to the municipal budget. Others, usually those on Council at the time, resent the implication that they are incapable of handling the affairs of the community without help from extra members. There were objections that the suggestion came too close to a municipal election, as such a change would require a vote by the residents, and there was not enough time to arrange such a plebiscite before the next vote.

Whatever the objections, surely it is worth having a discussion about this? Let me emphasise here that this is, in no way, a criticism of the current Mayor and Council. They have done far better than most previous Councils, and have managed to maintain a collegial approach to governance, whatever the reality may be behind closed doors. Who knows? But is it fair, not to mention efficient, to have the same number of people trying to administer a far larger municipality, both in terms of population and issues, than the same number had to deal with in 1997, much less in 1857? The current Council is the smallest permitted under the Municipal Act: surely that says something? To add to the situation, our Councillors are expected to do a much more complex job as part-timers, with part-time pay, in spite of more recent increases in that regard.

There are, of course, arguments on both sides. A larger Council would cost more, especially if it became full-time. More members of Council would conceivably increase the likelihood of interpersonal rivalries, conflicts, etc., and make it harder to have a concerted and disciplined approach to administration. But that is a danger whatever the size of Council, as we’ve seen in the past. A larger Council would allow individual Councillors to supervise a smaller number of committees, fewer areas of responsibility, allowing them to become more familiar with their portfolio in relation to working with staff and keeping on top of their mandates.

Being on Council takes a great deal of time and effort. More and more, the demands on their time and energy, the need to get a grasp on the many issues coming before Council every week, and the physical and social cost to them and their families, all need to be taken into account. As a community, we definitely take for granted the job members of Council have to do on our behalf. It is time we had a serious discussion, as friends and neighbours, about what we can do to make the job more efficient, effective, and humane. And we need to have that discussion long before the next municipal election.


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