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Caught between a rock and ward system

By: Darren MacDonald - Sudbury Northern Life

 | Feb 05, 2014 - 2:28 PM |

Debate this week on a proposal for a $4.7 million therapeutic pool in Azilda’s Lionel E. Lalonde Centre was a perfect illustration of why residents may want to take a hard look at how our local government operates.

The pool, an issue close to the heart of Ward 4 Coun. Evelyn Dutrisac, is an amenity more and more cities are building, mainly for the growing population of older residents.

The feasibility study presented to the community services committee this week revealed that while there is a definite need for leisure and therapeutic pools, the city has has more water than swimmers in Greater Sudbury pools.

“If the city is going to commit to building a new leisure pool, there should be a willingness ... to consider the closure of an aging, under-performing aquatic facility,” the study concludes.

It was this element of the report that highlighted the weakness of our current system. How can any of the 12 councillors allow any amenity in their ward to close without paying a price? With so few votes needed to win a ward, a few hundred disgruntled users of a closed pool could sink an incumbent.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a pool or an arena, closing facilities in a ward system puts councillors in a really tough position. Even though it might make logical sense, for the people in their wards — emotionally — taking a service away is hard to swallow because even though the city as a whole might gain, a neighbourhood loses out.

Such is life under Sudbury’s ward system, which encourages councillors to focus on issues in their neighbourhoods, while perhaps losing sight of what’s best for the city in the bigger picture.

That’s why, for example, Chelmsford Arena is being renovated, instead of rebuilt with an extra ice pad. It’s also one of the reasons why this council didn’t tackle any big projects this term, other than the $60 million biosolids plant, which was forced on them by Vale and tougher provincial regulations.

So is there a better way?

Rebecca Johnson, an at-large councillor from Thunder Bay, told last month’s Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce forum on council structure that her city’s mix of ward and at-large councillors provides a balance when decisions are made.

Johnson said she doesn’t have to worry about road, snow plowing or other “boring” complaints that Thunder Bay’s seven ward councillors have to deal with. Instead, she and the four other at-large councillors can focus on bigger issues. It offers a strong mix she said serves residents well.

It was intriguing to hear former Mayor Jim Gordon say the ward system is better, because it’s an up-close education for councillors on how local politics really works. You hear directly from voters, he said, learn why they vote the way they do — and what you have to do to get re-elected.

It was intriguing because Gordon is remembered for freezing taxes as mayor, which helped him get re-elected as often as he wanted. Voters at the time loved it, despite dire warnings from public works staff about our crumbling watermains and roads that needed work.

Fix it now through a modest tax increase, they warned, or pay a lot more later. We know who won that argument.

Having something like the 7-5 split that exists in Thunder Bay would still leave ward councillors with a majority — and constituents with someone to fight specifically for them — but we would also have six politicians whose focus would be on the city as a whole.

Such a hybrid system would also create another, potentially beneficial, side effect.

At-large councillors would already have a city-wide profile, and experience dealing with bigger issues. Such a system would also offer ward councillors a route to the mayor’s office, without having to challenge for the top job right way.

It’s too late for reform before the October 2014 vote, but for change to happen in 2018, the discussion has to start now.

@darrenmacd

Darren MacDonald covers politics and city hall.

Darren MacDonald

Darren MacDonald

Staff Writer

@Darrenmacd

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