An overwhelming vote against changing municipal ward boundaries is symptomatic of protectionism that veteran Councilor Doug Sulman says has him ready to give up on amalgamation.
“Maybe we just need to admit it’s not going to work,” he said after council last week rejected an opportunity to re-draw ward boundaries to reflect what he calls the “reality that exists.”
“It’s a prime example of council members being more interested in protecting their political turf than doing what’s right for Chatham-Kent as a community.”
In three separate votes, the final by a 14-3 count, council rejected motions to move developed fringe areas surrounding Wallaceburg and Chatham into those wards.
Sulman said he’s fed up with what he called a “zombie” council that doesn’t think progressively.
He said the lines drawn between representatives of the former City of Chatham and Kent County municipalities continue to impede progress.
“Before amalgamation, we argued about providing water to rural areas and property assessment,” he said. “Now, it’s like every ward is determined to get its perceived share of everything regardless of how it effects the municipality as a whole.”
He said the perception that Chatham has the power at council is creating a hostile environment across the community.
“When it comes to votes, Chatham can get outvoted every time but if we build a facility to serve the greatest percentage of population, then every single ward has to get something because Chatham got it.”
Sulman said given the financial strain on the municipality, not every community should get funding for arenas, tracks, splash pads or other amenities.
When one home assessed at $150,000 in Chatham is paying more property tax than 200 acres of farmland, Sulman said it points out who’s paying the bulk of the municipal budget.
“Councillors are afraid to go back to their wards without getting a piece of the pie and it will eventually kill us financially,” he said.
“Someone has to have the courage to take an unpopular stance.”
He said he’s considering entering a motion asking the province to step in but would prefer to see a local solution.
“If we went straight to representation by population, we could end up with the end of the ward system which has become so divisive,” he said. “It would increase the cost of running for council but it would mean an end to this ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude.”
Sulman, who has served as a Chatham council member since the mid 1980s, says he agrees with Western Ontario University political science professor Andrew Sancton who earlier this year suggested a review be undertaken.
In April, Counc. Derek Robertson failed to gain support for a motion to have a third-party review of the issue and still believes it’s necessary.
“We have too many councillors, the system was broken and remains broken,” he said. “I couldn’t support the motions last meeting because it didn’t fix the issue.”
Robertson said, “we as councillors will never get out of our own way on this. We fail in every regard. It’s absurd that we continue to have these little fiefdoms but we don’t have the balls to go to the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board).”
Robertson said change is difficult because although a 500-name petition is all that’s needed to reject the current system, that same petition would need to include a new model everyone agreed upon.
“We can’t get 17 councillors to agree so there’s little chance 500 people will do so.”
He said had council agreed to any ward change, such a change would require only one person to appeal it to the province.
“That’s why you won’t see a motion approved,” he said. “It’s all BS politics.”
Robertson said he’s considering whether council’s refusal to act could be considered as grounds for appeal.
“It’s an interesting thought but I don’t know if it would fly,” he said.
Mayor Randy Hope said, “we have to get over turf protection” but believes it’s too soon to say amalgamation isn’t working.
“I don’t think we’re broken,” he said. “Chatham Kent is only 17 years old and we’re in a transitional period. I’ve always said I thought it would take 20 to 25 years for the new identity to take hold.”
He said councillors need to rid themselves of the idea that there are “sacred things” such as water plants for drinking and waste treatment in various communities.
“If we can supply the service, the source shouldn’t be an issue,” he said. “When we bring in investment to Chatham-Kent, we don’t consider it as revenue for Chatham or Dresden or Tilbury, it’s for the entire community.”
He said officials should focus on the strengths of the community as a whole.
“When I’m promoting Chatham-Kent it’s like I have a variety pack to choose from. We have water, rail and workforce options, we have just about everything from a logistical standpoint.”
He says he believes most residents don’t care who represents them as long as they believe they have the ear of local government.
“It’s not who you know, it’s what you can do for taxpayers that counts,” he said. “It’s my job to bring in more investment so that we all prosper and we have more to spend on the projects important to us.”
Wallaceburg Counc. Carmen McGregor said her motion to make changes was in response to concerns from residents in the Wallaceburg area about representation.
“There are people living next door to each other who live in different wards,” she said. “They essentially live in Wallaceburg and theirs are Wallaceburg issues. They don’t understand why I don’t represent them.” She said she isn’t concerned that residents won’t get good representation.
“I know Joe (Faas) and Leon (Leclair) and they wouldn’t turn anyone away.”
During last week’s council meeting, McGregor said she was concerned that the one issue that wasn’t brought up was what was best for residents.
“There was a good amount of turf protection when the Chatham issue came up, less so with Wallaceburg,” she said.
McGregor said she doesn’t agree with Sulman’s assessment that amalgamation isn’t working.
“There is friction at times but that’s part of government,” she said. “Perhaps we shouldn’t have had a single tier government forced on us but that’s reality and we’ve made it work.”
North Kent councillor Joe Faas said he had no problems with minor adjustments for Wallaceburg but objected to amendments that could have taken areas such as St. Clair Estates from North Kent.
“If you take the properties along the (Thames) River east and west of Chatham as well, you really begin to take a whack out of North Kent. That’s something that could really be up to the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board) not our council to decide.
He said he gets calls from residents across the municipality.
“There are times someone I know personally from Chatham or Wallaceburg will call about an issue and it’s no problem at all,” he said. “I try to get their own ward councillor involved at that point but everyone deserves my attention, regardless of where they live.”
South Kent councillor Trevor Thompson voted against boundary readjustments because the issue is more complex than just representation.
“You can either have representation by population or communities of interest, not both,” he said. “Chatham-Kent was established on the basis of population. If we’re going to tinker with that, it affects a lot of issues. It’s not something that happens in isolation.”
Thompson said he’s done a 180 degree turn on the matter since being elected.
“When I was campaigning, I was asked the question about why someone on Charing Cross Road just past Indian Creek wasn’t part of Chatham and I didn’t have a good answer. I thought it might be a real issue but the truth is it only matters to people on council, the public doesn’t care.”
He said when the issue has arisen over the past several years there are “18 different ideas on council about it.
There is no one solution,” he said. “When the issue came up I had just two calls on it. One person was opposed and the other asked why we were even discussing it. We have more important issues.”