How Big Should a Municipal Council Be?

In December 1984, Ward Five Alderman Frank Starzomski put forth a motion calling for Sydney’s City Council to be reduced from 12 members to six.

Trimming city council had long been advocated by Sydney’s Shadow Council, a group of citizens—many of them women—who monitored the actual council, although, as the Cape Breton Post reported at the time:

While Starzomski advocated a straight reduction to six aldermen, (at an estimated saving of $100,000 a year), Shadow Council suggested  either six or eight aldermen, elected at large instead of by wards.

The key difference between the two proposals, though, was that:

The civic action group also encourages an education program to wean citizens away from the habit of calling on aldermen instead of the appropriate department heads as a first step in solving a problem.

Starzomski’s motion was “shot down” when no other alderman would second it. Mayor Manning MacDonald told the paper he was “surprised” it wasn’t discussed, but said Starzomski hadn’t even brought copies of his motion to pass around. (Although, speaking for myself, I think I could have understood “We should reduce council from 12 aldermen to six” without seeing it in writing.)

Starzomski was also criticized for presenting “too small a survey” in support of his proposal—he’d polled 42 residents, 38 of whom favored downsizing.

In dismissing what one termed a “foolish motion,” the aldermen claimed their work load was already heavy and would be doubled if their numbers were halved.

The Post asked the Shadow Council’s Margaret Paruch (mother of the late District 6 Councilor Ray, grandmother of the current District 6 Councilor Glenn) what she thought of the proceedings and she said she was not surprised as they’d put forward a similar suggestion four years earlier and “it just landed with a thud.”

On December 18, a Post editorial (written, I suspect by the late, great Doug McGee) considered the Shadow Council’s proposals, explaining that the point often made in favor of the reduction was that the City of Vancouver had 10 councilors whereas the City of Sydney had 12 (and Cape Breton County “a staggering 89”).

The editorial continued:

It’s true that if the role of a councilor is seen mainly as forwarding to city departments individual complaints from residents (about sewer problems, garbage collection or snow removal, etc) then they will be very busy indeed. But that parochial style of operating is badly out of date anyway.

Councilors in a city like Vancouver, the editorialist wrote:

…do not spend their time running around worrying about minor problems best left to city staff. Incidentally, that is one reason why municipal politics attracts many top-calibre candidates in such locations.


Plus ça change…

Fast forward 38 years almost to the day and there was CBRM council on December 15 debating a recommendation that it reduce its size from 12 members to six.

This time the recommendation came from a consultant, John Heseltine of Stantec, who was paid $40,686 for his troubles so probably won’t lose sleep over having his proposal “land with a thud.”

Council was having none of it, which was interesting, given that in the introduction to his report, Heseltine wrote that while councilors “strongly favored their current membership:

…one interviewee…favored decreasing Council from the current 12 Councillors plus the Mayor and three who were unsure, nine preferred to maintain the current Council size.

Elsewhere the report states:

The few [councilors] willing to speculate about reducing Council membership suggested nine members plus the Mayor would be sufficient.

Which would mean 10 people voting, which would open the door to tied votes, which doesn’t suggest councilors were giving this question their full attention.

Photo of CBRM council

Any such “uncertainty” had evaporated by the time councilors were debating the proposal on Tuesday, however; every councilor who spoke to the motion spoke against it.

And I have two things to say about this.


Sample size

First, I agree with the councilors who argued (as most did) that Heseltine’s sample size was too small to be representative of the general population. CBRM has roughly 81,000 registered electors and Heseltine heard from a statistically invalid sample.

In Phase 1 of his study, which focused on council size, an August public meeting attracted “25-30” people (a figure that included councilors as well as the public) and an online survey garnered 558 responses.

In Phase 2, which focused on district boundaries, the online survey collected 644 responses and a series of six meetings attracted 11 residents.

Even if you accept that the people responding in Phase 1 were different from the people responding in Phase 2 (a big “if”), that’s a total response of (tops) 1,245 or 1.5% of eligible voters.

District 3 Councilor Steve Gillespie was particularly incensed by this, telling Heseltine his report belonged in the “garbage.” District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald, trying to be more conciliatory, questioned the small sample size but said it wasn’t Heseltine’s fault that nobody turned up to his meetings and so few answered the online questions.

But here, I’m afraid I must beg to differ, because Stantec told CBRM that it could take the pulse of municipal residents and determine what they wanted in terms of council size and district boundaries and Stantec failed to deliver.

I get that public meetings in summer is a bad idea and I question why a municipality that knows it has to conduct a boundary review every eight years always waits until the last minute to do it. Why are councilors having their first discussion about a radical downsizing proposal on December 20 when the application to the Utility and Review Board (UARB)—which decides these questions—is due at end-December?

I would also note that councilors, despite their general outrage at the small sample size, don’t seem to have made any great efforts of their own to encourage citizen participation in the surveys, although, to hear them talk about the amount of time they spend in conversation with their constituents, they were ideally positioned to spread the word.

The bottom line, though, is that most CBRM residents didn’t weigh in on this issue, which could mean, as the results based on the small sample suggested, that the overwhelming majority actually do favor a six-member council or could mean that most (the “silent majority” according to District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald) think a 12-person council is perfect. We just don’t know.

Uncovering the secret to citizen engagement is beyond the scope of this article and besides, if I knew it, I’d be charging $40K for it, not giving it away.



The second thing I have to say is that the “parochial” and “badly outdated” notions about the role of municipal councilors critiqued 38 years ago by the Post‘s editorialist are alive and well in the CBRM of 2022.

Councilors at the December 15 meeting took turns explaining how much of their time is spent, not just taking their constituents’ complaints to CBRM staff but taking their constituents’ complaints to the provincial government.

And there’s a new twist to this argument that I didn’t run across in the 1984 coverage which is that CBRM is understaffed and it is therefore vital that councilors field these phone calls, because there is no one at the Civic Centre to do it. (No one asked the question, because council was in lockstep on this and Heseltine didn’t say boo after presenting his conclusions, but doesn’t this suggest we could halve the council and use the money to hire six people to answer the phones?)

Councilors take phone calls, they attend local meetings and celebrations, they drive all over their districts and they see this as their job to the point where District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie could actually say that were council reduced to six members they would spend all their  time focusing on—gasp!—CBRM policy.

Thirty-eight years ago, this was precisely the end the Shadow Council hoped to achieve, albeit, with six councilors elected at large. And here, I must note that some unnamed councilors, according to the Stantec report:

…felt at-large representation could encourage a more regional perspective in municipal debate.

However, as the report explains, consideration of at-large representation was beyond its remit.

Most councilors were happy to fear monger, during Tuesday’s discussions, about the terrible fate that awaits us all if we reduce their number to six—they would be forced to travel huge distances  (are Gabarus and Irish Cove even “in the same time zone” one wondered) and we would not realize any cost savings because the remaining six would require full-time salaries, offices, assistants and higher travel expenses. As for rural communities, they’d as well pack it in—their voices will never again be heard around the council table.

But all this is predicated on them continuing to believe that their job is, as the Post so memorably put it, “running around worrying about minor problems best left to city staff.” To be fair, it is also predicated on residents continuing to see their jobs that way, which it seems many of us still do.

So how do we resolve this situation?

I suggest we start in Vancouver.


At-large in Vancouver

Vancouver, you’ll recall, was the example cited by the Shadow Council back in 1984 when it was advocating  at-large councilors for Sydney.

I looked into Vancouver’s system and discovered that it is the only large city in Canada that doesn’t have a ward system—in 2022, it still has just 10, at-large councilors representing its population of over 600,000.

Proposed City of Vancouver wards in the 2004 electoral reform proposal. (City of Vancouver)

Proposed City of Vancouver wards in the 2004 electoral reform proposal. (City of Vancouver)

But Vancouver is geographically compact—it covers just 115 sq km compared to the CBRM, which covers 2,430.06 sq km, so while Gabarus and Irish Cove are not in different time zones (I know this, because I have driven from one to the other of a Sunday without having to reset my watch), the CBRM is geographically big.

Nevertheless, there might be something to be learned from Vancouver which, in 2004, considered abandoning its at-large system and adopting a 14-ward system. The lesson for us is in how Vancouver set about doing this: it created an electoral reform commission to study the idea and consult with the public and then it held a plebiscite in which residents rejected the idea with 54% (35,813) voting against and 46% (30,499) voting for.

Eighteen years later, polls suggest a majority of Vancouverites are now ready to adopt a ward system for reasons that are explored in detail in this Daily Hive article. (It covers the pros and cons of both systems.) Interestingly, some are suggesting a hybrid system with five ward councilors and five elected at large.

I don’t know if Vancouver will actually abandon its current system or how it will explore changing it but I am willing to bet it will take the issue seriously which, I have to say, is more than we seem to have done.