The size of city council and the level at which they serve

By Pepper Parr

October 12th, 2021



What kind of representation does the public get from the current City Council?

The merits of the current members of council is not the issue – that gets decided during elections.

In a reader survey the Gazette is currently running we asked two questions:

1:   Is a seven member council the right size for the City of Burlington?

2:   Burlington Council members are also Regional Council members. Should there be two classes of Council members: 7 Regional and 7 City?

The responses were interesting, however the number of responses were too low to be considered statistically reliable.

When Burlington elected five people who had never served as elected officials in 2018 the five faced a steep learning curve and in their first six months relied heavily on the City Manager for support and direction, which was a little awkward because they were the City Manager’s boss.

Learning just what their new jobs as City Councillors was  took time and it was hard work, particularly for two of them.

Getting a handle on what was expected of them at the Regional level made it doubly hard.  At least two don’t see a lot of use for them being at the Regional level and would be quite happy if they could cover the Regional meetings virtually.

Some council members find city council on the small side and a little too “clubby” for their liking.  There aren’t enough voices and the tendency is to agree on everything.  If one listens to council meetings often enough you see some jostling for position but there isn’t much in the way of innovative thinking. They often appear to be a cheering section for senior staff who are described as “awesome”.

The focus at the Region is the “bigger picture” where the objective is to make decisions that impact the four municipalities that make up the Region.

There are roads that are a Regional responsibility that reach into all the municipalities.  Waste management and water services along with Social Services and Public Health are dealt with at the Regional level.  To be an effective Regional Councillor one has to have a deep understanding of the needs of the municipality they represent.  That kind of expertise takes years to accumulate.

There are some who believe there should be limits on how long a person should serve with two terms being the average.  It is at that point that a Councillor, if they prove to be good at the job of serving the public, has a solid understanding and some experience he or she can rely on to make decisions.

It also means that they are around to be held accountable when the decisions they made ten years ago have proven to be less than the great idea when it was first floated and millions were spent.

The number of city Councillors who get to become Regional Councillors is determined by the Region. Oakville, Milton and Halton Hills figured out how to comply with the Regional seat allocation by having two classes of Councilors: those who were Regional and Municipal and those that were just Municipal.

The difference in the amount they are paid is considerable.  Burlington Councillors draw pay cheques from both the Region and the municipality.  You won’t hear much about a change in the makeup of the Burlington Council – they individually have too much to lose.

Oakville has a council set up where there are those who are just city Councillors – they don’t attend Regional Council meetings.  The remuneration for council members is drawn from two sources – basically half of what they are paid comes from the municipality and the other half from the Region.

Milton and Halton Hills have the same set up.

In Burlington members of Council get an office, an administrative assistant, a cell phone and an iPad

Oakville Councillors get a cell phone.

In the past people have shown up for meetings at which the budget is presented and staff are on hand to ask question. Very little that comes out of these meetings makes its way into the budget; they are more of a ‘keep the natives happy’ type of event.

In the not too distant future Burlington is going to want to look at the number of wards and the size of the population in some of those wards.  There is the suggestion that the city might want to add a ward or two.

That will raise howls from those who think being a city Councillor should be a part time job and that they should be paid less.  Anyone who has looked at the size of the agenda that gets placed in the hands of Council – they run to several hundred pages on many occasions, would think twice about taking on the job part time.  It is a full time job and and calls for people who are well educated and widely read.

Burlington strikes a committee every four years that is independent and tasked with reviewing what Council members are paid and what they are allowed in the way of expenses.  Their report goes to Council and is usually accepted just as it was presented.

It will be interesting to see if that Committee is asked to comment on the size of city council.




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