HUNTSVILLE – Opposition to the proposed elimination of electoral ward boundaries is mounting.
Huntsville council held the second of two public meetings on the issue at town hall on Oct. 15 with about 10 residents and several empty gallery chairs on hand to witness it.
The question of eliminating ward boundaries in the Town of Huntsville for election purposes only was raised by Brunel Ward coun. Tim Withey about a year ago. Withey argued, among other things, that the town’s population was unevenly split between the wards and eliminating the boundaries to elect councillors at large would provide fairer representation around the council table.
But those who spoke at the public meeting seemed to disagree. And many of them had connections to the area’s politically influential lake associations.
Elaine Jackson, former chair of the Huntsville Lakes Council, said she had been following the issue for years. Council had also discussed the topic in 2008.
Jackson said her small, northern Stisted Ward felt like a lone child.
“We’re lumped in with Stephenson and Port Sydney and we often feel, up north in Stisted, that we don’t have our own real representation,” she said. “It seems to those of us who live up there that all the decisions get made in the southern end and it’s difficult for our issues to be addressed.”
While Coun. Det Schumacher argued the ward had representation through his efforts, Jackson noted it was likely the perception of being isolated in the north without a dedicated Stisted Ward councillor that make residents feel the way they do.
She suggested a way to address the issue is not to eliminate the ward boundaries, but but to change them so Stisted is lumped in with part of Chaffey for election purposes as Chaffey could also be considered a northern ward. She urged councillors to keep the ward system as it is important to maintain an urban-rural distinction. Both have unique issues and a ward councillor would likely be more aware of the issues facing a particular ward then would a councillor elected at large, she said.
John Woodcroft, president of the Mary Lake Association, noted that the lake association board representing about 150 households in the Stephenson, Brunel and Port Sydney wards had voted unanimously against eliminating ward boundaries.
“We’re not opposed to (revisiting) ward boundaries if council deems it may better enhance representation, and if it can be done on a cost effective basis,” said Woodcroft. “But as an association we are categorically against moving toward an at-large election.”
He echoed Jackson’s remarks that redrawing the boundaries to address population distribution issues and geographical disparities may be the most appropriate course of action, even if it comes at a price.
Councillors had casually discussed the estimated cost of changing the ward boundaries, which would include consultants and studies, at thousands of dollars though no definitive amount was calculated.
Port Sydney resident Ryan Kidd stated his concern that an at-large election format would see most candidates come from the Huntsville or Chaffey wards and thereby skew the representation around the council table in favour of urban residents.
“The desire to examine this, take a look at it and make it more fair is admirable,” said Kidd. “But to replace one distortion with another, I don’t think it’s going in the right direction.”
Council also received two written submissions from residents, including former mayor Ron House, who supported redrawing the boundaries or shifting ward representation rather than eliminating the boundaries altogether.
But Port Sydney resident Paul Johnson noted that in the absence of a strong lobby to council from the community, it did not make sense for council to be taking on the issue on its own.
He recommended the elimination of boundaries be put on the next ballot as a referendum question.
Mayor Claude Doughty stated that council would not be making a decision on the issue in the immediate future and more discussion would need to take place. However, he said he was not opposed to a referendum on the issue.