The size of council debate which is before Mississippi Mills’ Council is a fundamental democratic issue about how the municipality should govern itself. Some councillors have concerns about the current proposals to potentially reduce Council to seven members. The supporters of the reduction say the current number of councilors causes meetings to be too long and too inefficient. They prefer a smaller Council so decision-making can be accelerated. The question before all of us is: what is the price? This is not a question of economics as there is little doubt that Council salaries will go up commensurately with the increased workload. It is a question of how the average person can access their Council and feel a part of their government. In these discussions, Council needs to remember that it exists to serve the people, first and foremost. It does not exist to serve the municipal staff or the development industry as its primary function.
Two fundamental principles are at issue. The first issue is; who gets to sit on Council? Are there potential candidates who will be excluded by going to a smaller Council?
In theory, everyone would agree that our Council should reflect the variety of people who live and work in the community. All groups whether they are retired or working people should have the ability to sit on Council. The very success of a council depends upon having people from all walks of life sitting at the table. A higher number of councilors allows the work of Council to be spread around so that no one carries too much of a burden. The proposal to reduce Council will obviously increase the time commitment and the workload on fewer councilors. Unfortunately, this will be an additional major deterrent for the average working man or woman to serve on Council. As the workload increases, the new councilors’ salaries will increase and we will end up with a semi-professional ‘political class’ who will sit on Council for decades. Rural Ontario would be much better served by a variety of average citizens sitting on Council who are in touch with the concerns of the working people of the community. By excluding a whole group from Council, the current proposal stifles the voice of the working people of our community.
The second issue is the way council relates to the community. We are a rural community. We function very well by sharing information, by cooperating and by listening to one another. Our community is made up of literally hundreds of volunteer groups. Each one provides fellowship and leadership in our community. To truly be successful in small-town and rural Ontario, a municipal council should be in close contact and communication with all these groups. These groups do beneficial work in our community. Without these groups and their volunteers, our community would not be able to function the way it does. This is not the City of Ottawa which simply keeps adding departments and employees when it wants to do things. We function quite differently. We create partnerships with community groups to further community aspirations and we do it in a way which is far more economic and efficient than the city. However, all of this sharing, partnering and listening takes significant chunks of time. A Council of fewer councilors will not be able to support this vital characteristic of our municipality
A Council which is open to people in all walks of life and which maintains its contacts with all the community groups which are so vital to the life-style of rural and small-town Ontario is to be cherished and protected. A reduction in the size of Council will further erode these values.
Finally, proponents of a smaller Council argue that decision-making takes too long in Mississippi Mills due to the larger Council and consequently, growth is slowed down. The evidence is to the contrary. In the past fifteen years with an 11 person Council, Mississippi Mills has made enormous strides forward in growth and investment in the Town. New Fire halls, Renovated Day Care, three Arena renovations, Old Almonte Town Hall Renovation, Sewage treatment plant, Ottawa St, Business Park investment, a waterfront park, hundreds of new residences, Riverwalk, Beautification projects, Community Official Plan, long-term fiscal planning, etc. are only the highlights of a strong and focussed Municipality. These achievements are the result of a combination of an experienced staff leadership team coupled with an 11 person Council. The Staff provide professional technical leadership and the Council provides public input & decision-making. It is a good balance. One thinks of the addage, “ If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”
A smaller Council might actually accelerate growth but it would be at the price of reducing public input at the Council table where it matters most. Of course, there is an unanswered question; is accelerated development what the community wants? Instead of the current 800+ residences in various stages of approval in Almonte, does the community want 1600, 2400, 3200? Does the community want accelerated commercial strip development along Ottawa St. with more big box stores and fast food joints built faster and with fewer questions asked? Does the community want 1,000 more rural severances instead of the 700 we currently have? I believe, the community as a whole likes the current rate of change as it seeks to balance growth with the preservation of the character of the community. One only has to look at our sister town of Carleton Place to see firsthand what rapid growth on the edge of the community has done to decimate the Mainstreet businesses. Thankfully, Almonte and Mississippi Mills has a more balanced approach.
In closing, many of you who read this may think this is a ‘tempest in a teapot’. “There they go again, Small-town politicians talking to themselves!” The very low attendance at the public meetings on this topic would confirm this view. Certainly, there are more important issues in this world such as wars, famine and injustice. We only ask for a small portion of your time to think about your own community and how we can make local democracy work as best we can. As we inevitably change and move forward let’s not lose sight of all the good things which make easy access to rural and small-town democracy something to be celebrated. It should not be sacrificed on the fictional altar of administrative efficiency. When questioned on democracy, Churchill said, “Democracy is the most inefficient form of government…….but, it’s the best we’ve got!”
Councillor, Mississippi Mills