Councillor Doug Sulman discussing motion to put question on ballot regarding council size. February 12, 2018. (Photo by Sarah Cowan Blackburn News Chatham-Kent).

Ballot Question On Council Size Rejected

A Chatham-Kent councillor is calling it a “sad day for democracy” after his motion to add a question on this year’s municipal election ballot regarding council size was rejected.

Councillor Doug Sulman’s motion, which called for the municipality to add the question on the 2018 municipal ballot, failed 11-7 at Monday night’s council meeting. The question would have asked CK voters if they thought the municipality should reduce its number of councillors beginning December of 2022.

“I’m disappointed that it failed, but I’m not surprised with the makeup of council. It’s a sad day for democracy in Chatham-Kent,” says Sulman. “It’s not the first time it’s happened. I don’t know what people are afraid of… why they don’t want to respect the voters and listen to what they have to say about it. This would’ve really stimulated something in a campaign.”

According to Sulman, the only places with more councillors than Chatham-Kent are Ottawa and Toronto. He says he has been hearing from countless residents who think the council size should be reduced.

Sulman says at the start of this council, they tried to have a discussion about governance models but it got shot down in the same way. He is not confident any progress will be made next term.

“It sure doesn’t appear that this group wants to change anything. Not only that, they’d still have to put it on the ballot of the 2022 election and by then it’s 2026… then they’d have to put it in place by 2031. That’s crazy. We should haven’t to wait that long to have a matter go before the public,” explains Sulman.

Sulman says 16 people coming to a meeting is hardly the tens of thousands of responses you get on a ballot.

Yvonne Lavens was one of the 16 residents who voiced her opinion at the public meeting that was held prior to the session of council. She believes there needs to be an equal or even representation of all Chatham-Kent residents.

“We have to know in what areas the councillors are coming from before we make a definite decision,” explains Lavens. “I do believe that a lot of the urban, city councillors, who have never had too much contact with a rural area, don’t really understand our issues.”

She says if council is reduced, most of the councillors should come from rural areas to represent those residents.

Willis Pollett, another resident at the meeting, says Chatham is a good, diverse community but it needs to work together. He says the municipality should use this public feedback to manage the community.

“It’s great to put it up there, but if it’s done wisely with the public’s interaction, as well. The public needs to be more educated as to what’s going on,” explains Pollett. “There’s a lot on the back-burner that the public is not aware of, but it’s also important that the public take advantage of their freedom of speech and rights as a voter.”

Louis Roesch, a director with the Kent Federation of Agriculture, spoke against adding the question and says reducing council’s size would not save money.

“I think that you have to have a serious look at where things are at today in general. Everyone is a favour of cutting back… but the reality is if you take all the councillors that are here right now in the budget itself, it’s less than three-quarters of 1%. Is that really what we want to go after?” he asks.

Roesch says councillors would likely ask for salary increases anyways because their hours would become closer to full-time. He also raises the concern of staff getting burned out while trying to run the same operations with less staff.

He thinks the way it is right now is safe, but the municipality still needs to have a serious look at improvement.

After the public meeting adjourned, councillors also shared their opinions on the matter before voting at the council meeting.

Councillor Steve Pinsonneault says the wards in Chatham-Kent are already quite large and by reducing council size, it may not be the best for outlying areas.

“Once we start going on this slippery slope, there’s not going to be an end,” he says.

Councillor Jeff Wesley didn’t seem to think the public was informed properly or given enough information. He says he hears a lot that money will be saved, but councillors are paid low already. If anything, he says the pay will end up being increased for staff to handle the extra workload. Above all, Wesley feels the question is not clear and concise enough.

On a similar note, Councillor Joe Faas says councillors are the frontline people in the municipality and are spread thin as it is.

Councillor Karen Herman says she was not opposed to the question being put on the ballot but felt the community needs more time to make an informed decision.

However, Councillor Brock McGregor explains that the debate is not about answering the question, it is about gathering information for next term’s council and letting the community know the issue is being discussed. He says putting the question on the ballot would have been the responsible thing to do.

Likewise, Councillor Derek Robertson believes a future council should make this decision, but this is a vote to empower them. He says it is an opportunity for people to have their voices heard and one of the more responsible and critical motions council has voted on in the past three years.