OMB appeal commences cross-examination

Groups against City Council decision to exclude students argue their case during five-day hearing

The OMB hearing began Monday at City Hall.
The OMB hearing began Monday at City Hall.

Yesterday marked the beginning of the five-day Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) hearing against the City of Kingston, regarding City Council’s decision to realign its electoral districts.

The appeal, which was filed by the AMS, Sydenham District Association (SDA) and second-year Faculty of Law student Kevin Wiener in June, began with lawyers from each side cross-examining George Wallace, who led the proposal to develop the new boundary lines.

The appeal was filed to contest the proposed electoral realignment, which would exclude students from the population tally and decrease the number of city councillors representing students from four to three.

The OMB has the jurisdiction to revoke the decision, depending on the outcome of the hearing. A final decision must be announced by Jan. 1 to establish boundaries for the 2014 municipal election.

At the hearing, Wallace, senior special projects manager for the City’s Corporate and Strategic Initiatives Group, stated that the student population was not taken into account because data on population distribution was unreliable.

Student voter turnout was also too low to be meaningful, he said, and using the student numbers could create disparity in district voting power, since permanent residents in those areas would have greater representation.

During the cross-examination by the City’s lawyer, Tony Fleming, Wallace cited a series of studies which concluded that students in the 18-21 age range were “less likely to vote, less likely to take interest in politics or know about politics”.

This redrawing of boundaries reflects Wallace’s team’s Option 1, one out of four options that was considered.

The AMS and SDA appeals, along with an appeal from Kevin Wiener, pushed for the Council to adopt Revised Option 4A, which accounts for student population in its boundaries.

Option 4 changes the boundaries of Sydenham district, but keeps it intact, allowing student housing areas to retain four councillors. The final version of the plan is Revised Option 4A.

Kevin Wiener, who filed his own appeal in coordination with the AMS and SDA also cross-examined Wallace. He said data from the 5,000 Queen’s students the City surveyed should be enough to extrapolate to the general student population.

“Will students change locations? Won’t [student housing] continue to house students?” Wiener, JD ’15, said. In response, Wallace said the University had warned the City not to trust the data, since it was out of date and showed inconsistencies.

Wiener stated that the difference between the two maps is mainly whether students outnumber or are out-numbered by permanent residents in District 10, known as Williamsville.

With Option 1, the district contains 10,000 residents and 8,000 students, he said, whereas the smaller district in Option 4 would contain approximately 4,000 residents and 8,000 students.

He said low student voter turnout shouldn’t be a factor in deciding boundary lines. Even if students don’t vote, City councillors still represent the students living in their districts.

“If you know students only have half the voter turnout of permanent residents, you’re going to have that on your mind when you vote at Council on student issues,” Wiener said.

He added that the argument should be irrelevant, since it has no legal basis.

“There is no precedent for jurisprudence anywhere that says voter turnout is an acceptable factor to include in drawing districts,” he said.

Eril Berkok, the president and CEO of the AMS, and Thomas Pritchard, the AMS vice-president of university affairs, sat in on the hearing as well.

Berkok told the that he can’t comment on specific court proceedings, since he will also be on the witness stand later this week, but stated his support for Revised Option 4A.

“We just hope the City treats students the same as any other member of the Kingston community,” he said.

Jim Neill, the councillor for Williamsville district, said Wallace was put in an awkward situation by the hearing, since a quick amendment took Option 4 off the table as soon as it was created.

“Option 4 is the only one of the options that was never presented in a public meeting and never debated,” he said. “The minute George was done, someone moved an amendment to go to original Option 1.” He said the idea that low voting turnout disenfranchises students is “bizarre”.

“When I get a call from constituents … I ask how I can help,” Neill said. “I don’t say ‘did you vote’? I definitely don’t say ‘did you vote for me’, or ‘are you a student’?”

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