In what we can only describe as a surprising move, councillors in the RM of Cornwallis have voted to downsize their own numbers.
As the Sun reported yesterday, the Cornwallis council officially passed a bylaw on Monday by a vote of 4-1 to downsize from six councillors and a reeve to four councillors and a reeve.
“I don’t see any disadvantage to this,” Reeve Reg Atkinson told the Sun.
This isn’t a new situation for the municipality, as Cornwallis previously had only four councillors and a reeve. But it’s a rare situation for council to make such a decision.
Though Atkinson said it wasn’t the easiest decision to axe two council positions for the upcoming 2014 municipal election, he said everyone agreed that it was the right thing to do.
The new system will split the RM into two wards — a northern ward and a southern ward that are divided by extending Patricia Avenue east and west to each boundary. Each ward will have two councillors at large.
For the growing municipality, which had an estimated population of about 4,378 in the 2011 census, that means one councillor for every 1,094 people.
The council’s decision effectively climbs down from a decision made in 1998 to create six wards, including two at CFB Shilo. At the time, the ward system was defended as “better” than an at-large system where all of the councillors would have been elected by the entire electorate.
A Sun article on April 23, 1998 suggested that an at-large system could have resulted in some areas of the municipality not being represented. However, Atkinson defended the decision, saying it would allow residents access to two councillors, not just one, for better representation.
In the process, the RM can save about $20,000 in fixed costs and another $10,000 through expenses and administration costs by dropping down to four councillors. That extra $30,000 will then be put back into infrastructure, as the biggest challenge facing the municipality is the poor road conditions in the region.
So if Brandon’s nearest neighbours can decide to act in the best interests of the taxpayer, what are the chances that our city’s mayor and council might reach a similar decision before the next municipal election?
It’s not impossible — in fact previous mayors and councils in Brandon have examined the notion of reducing council seats as a means to find efficiencies and cut the cost of doing city business.
Currently, Brandon is served by 10 councillors and one mayor under our 10-ward system. In our opinion, a city our size would still be well served by eight councillors. After all, the cities of Grande Prairie, Alta., and Courtenay, B.C., — both of which have similar population sizes to Brandon — get by pretty well with eight councillors and one mayor.
As of 2011, Brandon had a city population of approximately 46,061, which means there is roughly one councillor per 4,606 people in Brandon — though of course that is somewhat misleading under the ward system. Coun. John LoRegio’s ward, Meadows, had an estimated population of 3,361 in 2011, while Jeff Harwood’s University ward had about 4,381 residents. Victoria ward under Coun. Murray Blight tops the lot with 5,213.
Keep in mind, these are all under the current ward boundaries. The numbers will be meaningless as of the 2014 municipal election due to forthcoming boundary changes that were approved by the current council.
But if Brandon’s leaders made the bold decision to remove two council positions, the city would be forced to once again redraw the ward boundaries — and if that happened, it would make sense to look at Cornwallis as a useful example.
Reducing Brandon to eight councillors would allow the city to be split into four quadrants, with the dividing lines likely along 18th Street and Victoria or Rosser avenues (based on our highly unscientific glance at the city map). That would allow each quadrant to have two councillors at large.
It would also save the city about $35,000 in salaries, as each councillor currently earns about $17,500. While that is a rather paltry savings, once Brandon’s population hits the 70,000 mark — optimistic estimates suggest that could happen within 20 years — having fewer than 10 councillors could also bolster any argument in favour of full-time councillor positions.
Will this happen anytime soon? We don’t think so, given how reluctant councillors generally are to vote themselves out of a job. But in light of the Cornwallis decision, it’s a discussion worth having.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 20, 2013