Township wins OMB hearing; new wards take effect in 2010

After years of complaints and some boundary changes by Centre Wellington Township council this year, the ward population issue is likely put to rest – for at least three years.
The Ontario Municipal Board has supported the ward boundary changes that coun­cil­lors  selected a few months ago. But there is no guarantee the township will not go through the same issue next election term.
Clerk Marion Morris said on Monday night the boun­daries are legally in force for the municipal election of 2010, but after that, a citizen could again legally challenge them and force yet another round of public meetings and even an­other OMB hearing.
The current boundaries have been under attack by a Fergus resident almost since the township was formed in 1999. Keith Fairfield has ar­gued that Fergus is under-rep­resented because the wards in his town have more people than other township wards. His prime examples are Wards 3 and 4 in Fergus, which have 5,276 and 3,973 people respec­tively, compared to Ward 2, El­o­ra, parts of old Nichol and Pilk­ington townships, which has 1,544. Fairfield proposed to council his own idea of an ideal ward system –  four wards, designated with letters.
However, when the OMB hearing was held two months ago, he presented an entirely new proposal. It consisted of three representatives on council from Fergus, and three more from the townships.
Fairfield was arguing sim­p­ly numbers, but council decid­ed to consider such things as communities of interest, the Grand River as a natural feat­ure dividing the wards, and that having an urban and rural mix in wards provides more effec­tive representation than just numbers.
OMB Vice-Chairman J.V Zuidema stated in her decision that the board prefers the ap­proach taken by the township council and finds that the muni­cipality of Centre Wellington has achieved effective repre­sen­ta­tion through its preferred option, and having undergone due public process, the wards are based on a proper balance and consideration of relevant factors.
Zuidema noted that at the hearing in October Fair­field testi­fied on his own behalf and did not call any other wit­nes­ses. Only three citizens in total attended some of that three-day hearing. The board noted it received a letter from one citizen, but gave it “little weight” because its author did not attend.
Zuidema also noted Fair­field and all of those who sign­ed his petition, which forced the OMB hearing in the first place, were given an opportu­nity to attend a public meeting called by the township to discuss ward boundary issues, and not one of them attended.
The township sent individu­al letters to everyone who sign­ed Fairfield’s petition.
“Mr. Fairfield, as well as all those who signed his petition, re­ceived specific notice of the public meeting and it was advertised in two local News­papers. The appellant did not at­tend this meeting, but sub­mitted his views in writing in advance,” Zuidema wrote.
Morris  testified at the hear­ing that when Fairfield began demanding changes to the ward boundaries or electoral system in January of 1999, council de­cided to maintain the status quo because of the recent amalga­ma­tion.
He continued to ask for  chang­es. In 2005 council held the requisite public meetings, where attendance by citizens was in single digits. Conse­quently, council kept the wards the same.
So, Fairfield decided to ob­tain 225 signatures on a peti­tion to force an OMB hearing.
Council did concede that his action caused the one elected in 2006 to reconsider the status quo and offer some changes to the ward boundaries.
Zuidema noted that Fair­field argued the criteria used by the municipality to arrive at the current proposal is not enough to justify the continued devi­ation in the ward populations.
But, Zuidema stated in her decision, “Both the clerk and the mayor provided unshaken testimony that specific commu­nities of interest were para­mount in the analysis and process undertaken by the municipality. They referred to service clubs, Sports and social organizations, churches, shops, schools, and cemeteries as being key considerations in determining the location of the ward boundaries.
“But of these, the board was advised that the Grand River was seen as a focal point in the analysis, and it was an aspect which unified the five former townships and villages,” Zui­dema wrote.
She noted the option for boun­daries that Fairfield pre­sent­ed at the hearing was new not only to the board, but to township officials, too.
Township lawyer Sarah Jac­obs pointed out at the hearing, “The Supreme Court of Canada … considered electoral boun­daries and determined that a variance in the size of voter populations among constitu­encies did not infringe rights guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
As well, “due weight must be given to voter equity, but other factors like geography, community history, community representation, and minority rep­resentation must also be considered.”
The township’s proposed new boundaries are:
– Ward 1, 3,948 population, north of the river, would be bounded by the river, Gerrie Road, the Woolwich Township boundary line, and County Road 17;
– Ward 2, south of the river, population 1,719, would be bound by Woolwich town line, Sideroad 6 North (instead of County Road 7), with a small corner at the northwest side of ward 4, close to the Grand River and the ward 2 boundary, included in ward 2;
– Ward 3, north of the river, would shrink in area, with a population of 3,859, and the boundary would be County Road 17, Gerrie Road, the riv­er, and Highway 6 except for a small portion near the river that would reach to Garafraxa Street and go north to Forfar Street;
– Ward 4, 3,801, would also shrink so its boundaries are Nichol Road 22, Sideroad 6 North, the river, and Jones Baseline and Scotland Street;
– Ward 5, north of the river would have 4,126 people, and have Highway 6 as its western boundary, the river, East and West Garafraxa Townline, and Sideroad 26 of West Garafraxa as its boundaries; and
– Ward 6, with 2,602 people, and boundaries that including the River, East and West Gara­fraxa Townline, a portion of the Erin and Eramosa Townline, Coun­ty Road 22, and Jones base­line and Scotland Street.
Ross-Zuj said on Monday night that township staff had done a terrific job in making their presentations. She noted Zuidema called their testimony “unshaken” and said of staff, “They were held to task.”
Some councillors have stat­ed several times they resent a single individual costing the township so much money with continued requests for the same thing.
Ross-Zuj said the township does not yet have a dollar figure on the OMB costs, but noted that people like Morris and staff planner Brett Salmon spent hours preparing the town­ship’s case, and the legal fees are also high.
“OMB hearings are not in­expensive,” she said. “Staff have to put the hours in. We need professional services.”
She added, “When you add all that up, the bill is very large.”
Councillor Walt Visser said he believes councillors would also like to know how much the hearing cost taxpayers.
He said in an interview pri­or to the meeting, “I’m glad they decided on the side of coun­cil. It’s an awful waste of time and money.”
And, he concluded, he, like most councillors, feel they rep­resent everyone, and not just their own wards.
“I’ve always been a coun­cillor in Centre Wellington. I’ve never asked, ‘What ward are you in’?”
Fairfield was not unavail­able for comment.