It is dangerous when those seeking political office use ward boundaries not as a tool to engage the electorate in a discussion of representative principles but as a means to spew division, segregation and mistrust.
By Maureen Wilson
Published September 18, 2017
Seventeen words. Seventeen words of sworn commitment to uphold an oath. Not just any oath, but one of the most sacred of oaths. The oath of public service.
"I will truly, faithfully and impartially exercise this office to the best of my knowledge and ability."
Section 232 of the Ontario Municipal Act sets out the oath of office each member of municipal council must take a declaration of office upon the assumption of public office.
By directly involving themselves in the drawing of their own ward boundaries, a majority of Hamilton City Councillors have violated their sworn oaths. And they put our democratic system of local government at risk.
Gerrymandering, to whatever degree, is hostile to the principle of impartiality. It is a cancer on our democratic system and it weakens the body politic.
As citizens, we have a right to expect that the setting of electoral boundaries will be free from political interference so that we know that our democratic system will be fair and that the outcome of elections will be legitimate.
There is a legal definition of bad faith.
"n. intentional dishonest act by not fulfilling legal or contractual obligations, misleading another, entering into an agreement without the intention or means to fulfill it, or violating basic standards of honesty in dealing with others."
A succession of elected Hamilton councils were unwilling to heed the advice of the Government of Ontario and review the city's ward boundaries ten years into the formation of the newly amalgamated municipality of Hamilton. Only after the threat of citizen action did Hamilton City Council undertake such a review during this past term.
The terms of reference agreed to by the City is critical. Impartial experts, practiced in the study of ward boundary reviews and public consultation, were to work independently from elected councillors and staff to consult with residents to evaluate the existing ward structures and design possible alternate ward boundaries.
But after setting out these parameters, Hamilton City Council not only rejected the recommendations of the independent public review but went further and opted for a recommendation that fails to meet the criteria that guided the public review.
A majority of Hamilton City Councillors knowingly and willfully breached the terms of reference of the ward boundary review. And, they directly involved themselves in the redrawing of their own ward boundaries. They did not faithfully execute their oaths of office.
When elected officials fail to uphold their sworn oaths of office they place their interests ahead of our democratic interests. And that is dangerous.
It is dangerous because it adds to the growing cynicism of our democratic institutions and norms.
It is dangerous because people begin to doubt the integrity of public consultation and public action. When decision parameters have been knowingly and willfully undermined by the very stewards charged with upholding and advancing the public interest and public trust, our democratic system takes a hit.
It is dangerous when those seeking political office use ward boundaries not as a tool to engage the electorate in a discussion of representative principles but as a means to spew division, segregation and mistrust - perhaps to camouflage the lack of ideological kinship they share with the provincial party they hitched their aspiring wagon to.
Ward boundary review will never be a page-turner. It will never top the list of things any candidate will hear at the door. But the principles behind the practice of setting ward boundaries matter as much as ward boundaries themselves.
So, instead of buying that cup of coffee some time this week, perhaps you could donate that same amount of money to Mark Richardson, the citizen who volunteered to step forward and speak up and out in defence of our democratic system of government. Every little bit will help.
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