I am very concerned with the change of the
municipal term to four years. I can
understand the argument that because the last year of a term is a lame duck
year, now you are wasting only one quarter of the term instead of one third but
do not agree with it. This argument is
only true if you believe a year of listening to the public and trying to cater
to public opinion is a waste. I thought municipal government was supposed to be the most accessible and
responsive of all levels of government in Canada. Isn’t municipal government supposed to be
about full, open public debate and full disclosure of all staff reports before
The Minister of Municipal Affairs, in the
preamble to the paper announcing the change, states: “There are a number of
potential benefits to longer terms of office. A four-year term offers
more time for a council or school board to forge an agenda, implement it, and
then seek the people’s judgment. In addition, municipal councils and
school boards would have similar time horizons to those of federal and
provincial governments in which to plan for the community and implement those
plans.” He goes on to state: “The
Association of Municipalities of Ontario and many municipalities have requested
for a number of years that the term of office for local government
representatives be extended. School board associations have also said they are
favour of such reform. “
The potential benefits of
a longer term of office are only realizable if there is also some
mechanism to ensure that council
policies and decisions are truly made in the open, and that all opinions in the
municipality are given consideration and a chance to be heard. The council must be large enough to represent
most of these opinions and there must be some way to recall a council if it
loses the confidence of the local
municipality. At the provincial and
federal levels, the government must resign if it looses the confidence of the legislature.
Municipal government affects us most directly; it should be at least as
accountable and responsible.
At the provincial level, decisions are often made in the
privacy of a secret cabinet meeting for which one can’t even get an agenda.
Cabinet ministers even swear oaths that they won’t reveal the public’s business
to the public. Reports that go to cabinet are automatically labelled secret. Something similar can happen in the first two years
(soon to be three) of a municipal council.
At the municipal level a small group of long serving councilors can meet in closed
meetings and hash out all sorts of
decisions and policies before discussing them in the open council meeting.
At the municipal level there is no elected opposition to question such tactics
and to bring such practices to public light.
Furthermore, in most municipalities, the council just isn’t large enough
to represent all points of view in the municipality. It is far too easy for say, developers to
elect a majority on council. We must find tools for creating checks and balances
on councils in non-election years. We need citizen involvement in non-election
years to create clarity about the importance of
local matters and local democracy, and we need to enhance the notion of citizenship
in our communities if the longer term is to work.
That longer term
also applies to municipal bodies like the public library board. The Public Library Act states: “A board
member shall hold office for a term concurrent with the term of the appointing
council, or until a successor is appointed, and may be reappointed for one or
more further terms.” Under the new term
of municipal office a potential library trustee is looking at possibly serving
for a minimum of four to eight years.
Many public library boards are going to experience difficulty in
recruiting new board members because of this lengthy commitment. It becomes
even more important to get the public more involved in municipal
government. Such involvement means supporting citizen groups that are broad-based and giving people a voice,
creating a sense of community, and doing all this in a non-partisan manner. And
above all, ensuring that council, school board and library board meetings
remain open and responsive in non-election years.