The First 100 Days - April 2011
Township of Muskoka Lakes Council
Observations of the Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association
The first 100 days of the new Council has now passed, and in many respects this period is often the most difficult for any new Council. As expected, Township business transactions slowed considerably due to the almost total turnover of Councillors from the last Council and their unfamiliarity with rules and regulations relating to all manner of responsibilities in decision making at the municipal level.
The Ratepayers' Association routinely has 2 to 3 representatives present at all public Township meetings, and largely through this presence, we offer the following observations in no particular order:
- The Town Hall meetings of last fall were a positive step to engage the residents of Muskoka in the democratic process, and to listen to the wide variety of interests and concerns that our diverse population represents
- Although the Councillor positions are part-time, the initial learning curve for the newly elected Councillors requires almost full time dedication and commitment. This has been particularly challenging for Councillors living outside the Township and involved in other activities. The result has been a significant number of decision deferrals to a later date to allow for issue updates and information gathering.
- Focused rhetoric and campaigning on a few high profile issues has had to take a back seat now that the Councillors are in office and shouldering responsibilities of exploring all sides of each argument and an understanding of the facts. They, of course, now represent the total electorate.
- It has become evident to the Councillors, and it is appropriate that they should rely heavily for guidance on the experience and the detailed knowledge of the Township staff – a group of dedicated professionals who have given and continue to give the day to day operations of the Township stability and insight on local matters. Compared to most communities, Councillors are beginning to realize how fortunate the Township is to have the acumen and capability of staff – committed and dedicated souls of considerable talent who deserve to be treated with courtesy and respect.
- The process initiated with respects to the 2011 budget offered more opportunity for debate in both Council and Committee of the Whole, as well as providing for early understanding and input from various stakeholder associations through the establishment of the special Advisory Committee on the budget. This is a very good initiative and follows a similar set of meetings with the District involving the Ratepayers', the MLA, LOBA and the GBA.
- Our Mayor, in an effort to streamline and improve the efficiency of Council business and improve accessibility and convenience, changed and tightened meeting schedules for Council, Committee of the Whole, and Committee of Adjustment. This decision has resulted in excessively long days for Councillors, increased Councillor work loads, and much more focused report reading and knowledge gathering over shorter periods of time to properly prepare for meaningful debate and decision making. The load becomes even more challenging for the Mayor and Councillor representatives at District meetings held at night on the same day as Township Council meetings. Time will tell whether this new schedule and timeframe can be sustained and whether the improved accessibility and convenience is worth the upheaval.
- The leadership roles at the Township and District played by the Mayor on almost every issue has been very demanding on her time availability, and, understandably, she is not always as accessible to meet personally or by phone. Some patience will be required on this score, but it will improve over time, no doubt.
- The filling of volunteer positions on local Boards remains the Mayor’s prerogative, and it is always a challenge to ensure that the appointments reflect broad and related experience from a wide cross section of the community. Her stated wish to sweep clean with a new broom may have its advantages, but “it is an old broom that knows the corners”.
- There has been much concern over the potential for conflicts of interest of the new Council, and each has been advised to seek his/her own legal Counsel to avoid any missteps. As well, the optics and appearances of conflicts can be very damaging and should also be dealt with so that the public perception of politicians can be kept at an acceptable level.
- The tendency to assume that anything the former Council debated and approved was somehow not in the best interests of the community and should be reassessed and possibly repealed is unnecessarily divisive of the community and potentially wasteful of time, talent and treasure. The former Council should be thanked for their considerable efforts on behalf of the Township, and the new Council should welcome their input to ongoing discussions wherever appropriate and helpful.
- The Mayor to date has been a dominant figure in demonstrating Council and Committee leadership, however it is essential to ensure that the role of each and every Councillor is not thereby diminished, and that their voices and views be adequately heard.
- It is essential that the Mayor and Councillors state and insist at every Council and Committee meeting that delegations by the public show respect and courtesy, stay away from personal attacks or assertions of wrong doing, and keep within the boundaries of acceptable and appropriate ethical conduct.
- It is very encouraging to note that in recent Township meetings the Councillors are finding their voices, researching their individual positions, and voting on them. It is important that the voices from all areas of the Township be heard, and we trust that our new Council is starting to gel.
As was stated earlier, we are in the early days of a brand new Council, and it is hoped that lessons learned in the first 100 days will benefit all in the next 100 days. As always, the Ratepayers’ Association will have two or three representatives at all Township meetings.