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Committee kicks county council composition question to next term

Duelling legal opinions lead to county staff recommendation to not proceed
2020-03-11 County JO-002
County of Simcoe council chambers. Jessica Owen/BarrieToday

The County of Simcoe’s governance committee has decided to close the book on their work on a council structure change for now, choosing to let the 2022-26 council turn the page on any future changes.

County councillors are leaning toward increasing the size of county council by one member from 32 to 33 possibly starting next term, opting for an unelected full-time warden take the helm. However, choosing to appoint rather than elect a warden goes against current legislation available to the county, so before ironing out any further details on the change, it first needs permission from the province to proceed.

During their Jan. 13 governance committee meeting, the committee received a letter from the province and a legal opinion providing clarity on the matter.

An independent legal opinion was provided by John Mascarin of Aird & Berlis LLP to the County of Simcoe. During the meeting and in the staff report, county clerk John Daly said the legal opinion suggested that the legislative framework does not exist to permit the appointment of a non-elected resident.

However, the ministry of municipal affairs and housing provided a different opinion.

“Regarding the method of selection of your head of council, the Municipal Act allows upper-tier municipalities to change the composition of their councils, including whether the head of council is elected by general vote or appointed by members of council,” Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark wrote to Warden George Cornell in his correspondence.

“This means that municipalities, including the County of Simcoe, are generally able to revise their council composition to best meet local circumstances, without requiring changes in provincial legislation," the minister added. 

According to county staff, attempts to further clarify the information with the ministry were unsuccessful.

“That left us, as staff, very precarious between two opinions. As a result, staff are not recommending a change in council composition,” Daly noted in his report to the 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 being considered, the 32 members would still get a seat, however, a warden would be appointed to represent them, voted upon by the 32 members.

The matter of council composition has been particularly contentious over the past few years, with the entirety of council rarely coming to a consensus. The option to reduce council numbers overall was defeated at the council table, as was the option of having regional 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.

Daly said all these factors combined make it difficult to see a path toward getting changes approved by the end of this council term.

“I think we are at the end of this process, in all honesty,” he said. “I think we would be rushing in hoping that the lower tiers can deal with the matter.”

Deputy Warden and Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin noted it would be inappropriate to continue discussions on the changes during an election year.

Springwater Township Deputy Mayor Jennifer Coughlin said she worried all the work that had been completed on the matter would be shelved by the next council.

“We’ve made some significant headway and I would be remiss for it to just be put on a shelf,” she said. “We do have reports that just die with a term of council. How do we ensure that this continues to move?”

While Daly added to the recommendation that the next council continue the work, Dollin noted the committee and staff can’t be seen as directing the next term of council.

New Tecumseth Deputy Mayor Richard Norcross agreed that he didn’t think there would be the political will in an election year to get triple majority approval.

“I’m disappointed. I would have liked to see it happen. We did make great strides. I’m concerned we might have to backtrack if we brought it forward now,” he said.

The committee voted in favour of receiving the report, and deeming the issue concluded for the 2018-22 term of council. They also voted in favour of referring the matter to the 2022-26 council.