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County council looking at options around warden elections, including status quo

By Ian McInroy, Barrie Examiner

Possible changes to how the Simcoe County warden is selected will be discussed by county councillors next week. MARK WANZEL/PHOTO

Possible changes to how the Simcoe County warden is selected will be discussed by county councillors next week. MARK WANZEL/PHOTO

Simcoe County councillors will be pondering changes to how the warden is selected during a governance committee meeting on Wednesday.

The 32 councillors, representing the 16 member municipalities – but not the separated cities of Barrie and Orillia – will be considering a staff report that suggests four options.

As the county’s growth and population continue to grow, Simcoe County Warden Gerry Marshall said the position is becoming more significant.

“Given the workload involved, the expectations to serve as both a mayor and a warden are becoming unrealistic and both Grey County and the County of Simcoe are recognizing the need to find a similar solution,” he said.

The Municipal Act requires any changes to the election process to be complete by Dec. 31 of the year prior to a municipal election, which next takes place in the fall of 2018.

The first option, which is the status quo, to be considered by county councillors states than in order to be qualified to hold the office of warden, a county councillor must first be elected as mayor or deputy-mayor for one of the 16 lower-tier municipal councils.

That person can then be appointed as warden by county council for a two-year period, but still hold their mayor/deputy mayor status.

The second option would see the appointment of a warden from elected county council members, but requiring them to resign from their elected office so they can focus on county responsibilities.

It was unclear on Thursday whether that option would entail possible by-elections or appointments to replace the person appointed as warden.

“It is suggested that by having the (warden) serve only on county council, it would help ensure that the (warden) is not perceived to have a divided loyalty and that they are clearly the ‘face’ of county council,” county clerk John Daly said. “The (warden) would also be in a more effective position when dealing with other levels of government and business interests.”

A third option would have the head of council elected by the public during an at-large general election every four years.

“Some may argue that this option is more democratic by putting the power of appointment in the hands of the electorate,” Daly said. “Those opposed may argue that in a large geographic region such the County of Simcoe, it would be expensive (and subject to election spending limits) and a difficult campaign due to geography, with candidates from the more populated areas having an unfair advantage.”

Grey County councillor and Blue Mountains Mayor John McKean, who sits on Grey County council, located immediately west of Simcoe County, introduced a motion similar to Option 3 last month.

“There deserves to be somebody here all the time, for this council to give them direction, to be able to attend functions and do what is actually the job of a chief executive officer because that is what the warden is,” he said of Grey County. “Voters, and not local politicians, (should) get to decide who serves as Grey County warden.

“Even out there now we find people who say, ‘You guys elected the warden. That is not my warden. His name wasn’t on the ballot,’” McKean said. “I think we can take that away and it is a lot more transparent.”

Daly said there may be issues with that option, however.

“There is also a concern that a directly elected warden may not be deemed to be qualified or experienced, and could potentially be at odds with their council, as opposed to council appointing their desired leader and head of council,” he said.

The fourth option to be considered by Simcoe County councillors next week would see the warden appointed by council who would be a non-elected, qualified person as laid out in the Elections Act.

“The province (has not provided) a clear response as to whether this option is viable under the existing or new legislation, rather suggesting we obtain a legal opinion,” Daly said. “Unfortunately, legal opinions are varied as to whether we have the authority as a county council to undertake this process, meaning we likely could, but if challenged successfully, we may be required to revert to the status quo.

“Some legal opinion suggests that this option may also require some legislative change which may not make it viable for 2018,” he added.

Former Simcoe North MPP Garfield Dunlop, who was county warden in 1998 when the term of office was one year (that changed to two years in 2010), said he is generally satisfied with how the county selects a warden.

“If I was a sitting member of county council today, I would go with the status quo. I don’t see a huge problem with it,” he said. “But I think it would be an improvement if the county councillors (did not include) just the mayors and deputy-mayors but if they were actually elected in their home councils as county representatives.

“A lot of people who go to county council have never opened their mouths in the years they are down there (at the county administrative centre),” Dunlop said. “I would encourage county council to look at a direct election of a county representative from each municipality every four years when they elect not just a mayor and a deputy-mayor but a county council member as well.”

Recommendations put forward by the governance committee will be considered at the next meeting of county council on Sept. 12.

Depending on the decision made by council, additional legislative approvals from other levels of government and member municipalities would be required, including possible public meetings.

- With files from Postmedia Network