Bridging the rural-urban divide

With municipal amalgamation already two decades in the rearview mirror, points of contention still remain for residents.

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With municipal amalgamation already two decades in the rearview mirror, points of contention still remain for residents.

But many of the earlier worries and fears have also calmed.

In the lead-up to the Oct. 22 election, municipalities across the province are tackling many common issues, particularly crumbling infrastructure and economic development.

Some continue to grapple with a rural-urban split as to how money is spent on such big-ticket items as arenas and other community facilities.

Retired Western University professor Andrew Sancton, who specializes in local governance, said it continues to be a reality that municipal politicians often face.

“This issue came about because of amalgamation,” he said. “The whole Ontario municipal government system was designed on the idea that rural and urban would be separated, and that was the way that the British local government system was originally designed.

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“Chatham-Kent is a very significant municipality in Ontario because it was the first big rural-urban amalgamation. This was really an experiment that nobody really knew how it was going to work out.”

Sancton said one of the reasons for amalgamation at the time was that it was supposed to save money.

However, in amalgamated municipalities, especially when there is heavy investment in its largest community, Sancton said there is often pressure to spend money in the outlying areas as well.

“Trying to keep everybody happy is expensive,” he said. “But if you don’t keep everybody happy, you have huge political tensions.”

He added the concerns aren’t just monetary, noting that representation is also on the minds of residents, given their larger territories.

In 2015, Sancton addressed Chatham-Kent councillors when they were pondering changes to ward boundaries and council size. Council ultimately decided against asking for a third-party review.

The ward boundary issue was also debated in 2011 after a report from the governance task force, but council at the time elected to stay with the status quo.

On council size, Sancton said he believes there is approximately the right number of bodies around the table in Chatham-Kent.

“Personally, I don’t see any reason for cutting (council). … Seventeen or 18 is not out of line,” he said. “There certainly wouldn’t be big financial savings to be had by cutting five or six. And I don’t see any reason why you would cut it more than that.”

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He did say he supports “one person, one vote” concerning ward boundaries.

“Some people will say, ‘we had the amalgamation so we have to compensate the rural areas,'” Sancton said. “In my mind, if that’s the belief, then that’s an argument against the amalgamation in the first place. If it’s impossible to have a system where people are comfortable with one person, one vote, that is a serious problem, for me.”

North Kent Coun. Leon Leclair, who is not seeking re-election, is a farmer who believes attitudes have been changing toward rural-urban relations.

He added there is a shared interest in fostering a more positive approach.

“We need to work together,” he said. “It’s got to go both ways.

“For everybody to be successful, we all need to be profitable. That’s the sign of a healthy economy, when everybody’s doing well.”

As a friendly response to the commonplace signs, “If you’ve eaten today, thank a farmer,” Leclair has been promoting “If you’ve farmed today, thank a consumer” on social media.

Although he said there are still concerns among residents who want what’s best for their respective communities, Leclair believes municipal spending has been balanced fairly.

He admitted it’s frustrating when politicians try to promote a rural-urban split for political purposes.

“I need Toronto,” he said, “but Toronto needs us too in a rural area.”

He called it a positive experience to see urban residents visiting Pain Court for the recent International Plowing Match & Rural Expo, which he co-chaired, and then watching farmers attend the Princess Auto Elite 10 curling event in Chatham the following week.

Leclair said co-operation and mutual support bodes well for all communities within the municipality the long run.

“Together we are a lot better. Together we are a lot stronger,” he said.

tterfloth@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/DailyNewsTT

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