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Ward boundaries: the real unresolved issue of Hamilton's amalgamation

Thirteen years after amalgamation, suburban wards still have more by-the-numbers representation on council. Ward boundaries are a touchy subject that has significant implications for how the city works and the balance of political power. This week, the mayor brought it up again.
Hamilton amalgamated 13 years ago with the idea that ward boundaries would eventually be reviewed. It still hasn't happened. (Terry Asma/CBC)

A voter in rural Flamborough has three times more clout in municipal government than a voter living on the central Mountain.

With a population of just 17,600, Ward 14 voters get three times the value from their vote than a voter in the central Mountain's Ward 7, where there are more than 60,000 people.

That inequity is the major unresolved issue of the Hamilton's 2001 amalgamation, and the one that few politicians want to debate.

Amalgamation gave the suburban municipalities much more voting clout than their population warranted and there was an understandingit was part of the report on amalgamation to the Ontario government— it would be addressed within 10 years of the merger. Now, 13 years in, it hasn't happened.

Three times, councillors have discussed the issue and deferred that debate to the next council, understanding how tricky rearranging the city's electoral map will be for all concerned. It wasn't until July 2012, after a citizen petition, that council voted to review the boundaries in 2015-after the upcoming election. Will that review happen as scheduled?

It's the kind of thing that is best tackled at the beginning of a term of council.- Brian McHattie, Ward 1 Councillor and mayoral candidate

Amalgamation came up earlier this month when Mayor Bob Bratina said he would ask the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to review the issue. And now he has issued a warning about the potential damage of revisiting ward boundaries. On Jan. 28, Bratina broached ward boundary reviews in a blog post called "The Balance of Power."

The planned 2015 review "will once again create problems in the relationship between the old city and the amalgamated suburban areas," Bratina wrote. If a new ward is created on the Mountain, he said, it would disrupt the voting balance between "old and new" — the seven suburban wards versus the eight former city wards, with a mayor in a position to maintain or tip the  balance.

But  Mountain councillor Terry Whitehead said at a council meeting Wednesday that no one was talking about creating a new ward. Bratina's blog post is just early campaigning for October's election, the Ward 8 councillor said.

"It's disingenuous, and it's really campaigning on division," he said. "I won't tolerate that, and I'll hold him accountable every time he misleads people on these issues."

Pre-2001, six Hamilton municipalities — Flamborough, Dundas, Stoney Creek, Glanbrook, Ancaster and urban Hamilton — each had individual councils. When the province amalgamated them to form the new City of Hamilton, most of the old city and ward boundaries remained intact.

A ward boundary review hasn't happened yet because councillors have been busy, said Coun. Brian McHattie, a Ward 1 representative and mayoral candidate. And it's admittedly a contentious issue politically, which means timing is important.

"It's the kind of thing that is best tackled at the beginning of a term of council," he said.

A ward boundary review, when it happens, will not be as simple as carving up the city by numbers, said  Larry Di Ianni, a former mayor of amalgamated Hamilton and one-time Stoney Creek councillor. Communities have distinct identities.

"You have to look at the history and the tradition of an area, and giving voice as well to the parts that don't feel like they get the respect they deserve, whether it's perception or reality," he said.

Not just a numbers game

"In Canada, we've got a province with a population the size of Burlington, and nobody begrudges the fact that it has provincial status with a provincial legislature.

"More than 10 years after amalgamation, there's still some of that resonance here, and you need to pay attention to that."

Ward boundaries weren't revisited during DiIanni's mayorship, he said, because council was too busy with other issues.

"Councillors have probably been focused not so much on the governance side, but on making the city work."

That's the recollection of former mayor Fred Eisenberger too, who intends to run for mayor again this year. But he also acknowledges the politics, and says it's unlikely anyone will want to talk about it during an election year.

"These are complex issues where you win some votes in some areas and lose votes in other areas," he said. "I would expect during an election year that it's not going to happen."

Glanbrook, east Mountain growing fast

Here's a breakdown of the population of wards in Hamilton, according to the 2011 census:

Ward 1: 29,868

Ward 2: 37:569

Ward 3: 39,090

Ward 4: 36,333

Ward 5: 37,386

Ward 6: 39,249

Ward 7: 62,179

Ward 8: 48,807

Ward 9: 26,979

Ward 10: 23,524

Ward 11: 37,055

Ward 12: 35,120

Ward 13: 24,907

Ward 14: 17,634

Ward 15: 24,249

What would a review mean? Would it mean a new ward on the Mountain? That would not only change the urban suburban balance, but also the ratio between upper and lower city. What about taking one away from the lower city? What about redesigning them completely and breaking down the old community or ward boundaries?

Hamilton's population fluctuates, said DiIanni. Waterdown, Winona and Binbrook, for example, have grown rapidly over the last few years. That makes it prudent to do a boundary review. Maybe over time, the inequities are wil straighten themselves out?

Coun. Judi Partridge of Ward 15 in Flamborough voted against a ward boundary review in 2012. She's not opposed to a review, she said, but it's "really an issue that needs to be dealt with by the next term of council."

"It's not a yes or no answer."

Any review should take into account communities of interest, she said. It makes sense for rural Flamborough, for example, to have one councillor. It's rural and agricultural and has little in common with an urban ward.

"We're talking about an area with agri-business, which represents $1.5 billion to the city of Hamilton," she said. "That is a significant portfolio."

Citizen group tried to make it happen

In 2012, an ad hoc citizen-led group submitted a 77-page petition with 618 signatures that asked for a boundary review. That petition prompted the motion to review boundaries.

"People are afraid to visit the issue for fear of picking the scab off like mayor did," said Chris Cutler, who was part of the group that sparked the petition.

"A lot of people afraid of tackling it because of the simmering resentment of amalgamation even 12 years later."

It's not as simple as putting drawing boundaries according to population numbers, he said. The distinct characteristics of communities must be maintained.

But under the current system, he said, councillors vote only according to their individual ward interests. 

Review would cost $260,000

The review will cost no more than $260,000. The money will come from the city's tax reserve fund. Cutler isn't even optimistic that it will happen.

"I'm afraid I'm somewhat cynical about the likelihood of a new council," he said. 

"Hamilton city council's never met a decision they didn't want to postpone or put off." 

MPP Ted McMeekin, who represents Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, said any review of amalgamation issues has to stem from the decision of the entire council.

"You'd want to take a long, hard, serious, thoughtful, citizen-based, council-based look at what you want to do."

Hamilton's changing wards


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