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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Wedding bills

Civil marriage ceremonies, are they a business or a service?

 In September, I will have been married for forty years, a bit of a milestone.

Ted and I wanted to be married at city hall. We had met in the sixties, and all the pomp and circumstance and the attendant costs seemed unnecessary and even a little quaint. So a no frills but dignified service, in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion, at city hall seemed like a good idea.

Alas, it was not to be. That service was not available at city hall; we would have to make other arrangements. We paid for our marriage license and our bicycle licenses, and departed. 

Fortunately, a distant cousin was a United Church minister. He performed the service in the presence of our parents in my prospective mother-in-law’s livingroom, my new brother-in-law cooked the dinner, and four friends crashed the gathering for after-dinner drinks. And that was our wedding.

So when city clerk Cathy Saunders put forward a proposal last year that the city provide basic marriage ceremonies as a city service, I was delighted. The option to do so had been available since 2004, but the city clerk of the day had not been interested in pursuing the opportunity. Saunders, on the other hand, came from Middlesex County, which had implemented civil weddings several years earlier.

The proposal was for a very basic wedding to be performed at city hall, in the clerk’s board room. Weddings would be held only during normal office hours; no additional resources would be required since, under the changes to the regulations under the Marriage Act, the city clerk is empowered to designate others to conduct the ceremonies as well so there would be minimal disruptions to the work in the city clerk’s office.

When the city offers a service for which a fee is charged, that fee is calculated in accordance with the Municipal Act. Basically, the requirement is the fee be established on a cost recovery basis, meaning that the city should not be making a profit on providing the service. Accordingly, when the proposal was adopted by city council last year, a fee of $150 in addition to the cost of the license which is another $130 was established to cover the time expended by the city employee and the cost of the overhead for the use of the room.

Although the new service was controversial at city council when the by-law was passed, it has proved to be very popular with the public. Since its implementation a little more than a year ago, 345 marriages have been solemnized at city hall.

So what’s the problem, you may wonder.

It seems that some members of the community who perform marriages feel that city hall is intruding into what they see as their business and livelihood. They want the city to charge more or, better still, get out of the wedding business altogether. Ward 11 Councillor Denise Brown took it upon herself to plead their case and pave the way for delegations to the Finance and Administration Committee last week.

In Ontario, in order to be legally married, the marriage must be solemnized by someone who is duly authorized and listed with the Registrar General. That means persons who are appointed by their religious organizations or who are judges, justices of the peace, and now, municipal clerks and their designates.

The requirements of the ceremony are minimal: the parties marrying have to state that there is no legal impediment to the marriage and that they take each other as spouses or partners. Two witnesses to these statements are needed. Anything else is optional, including sermons, prayers, flowers, music, personally written vows, exchange of rings and all of the other accoutrements that are so common.

Most couples in Ontario, and in London, chose something a little more elaborate: a church, attendants, a reception. Weddings can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Others, concerned about their pocketbooks, prefer something a little simpler: a chapel, a park, a few friends for dinner afterwards. There are lots of options.

Among the options in London are businesses that specialize in weddings that are not held in churches. One of these, the Crystal Wedding Chapel, is owned by Dale Brewster. For a simple wedding, she charges $299 to $599. Her business specializes in Vegas style weddings and boasts that it is Canada’s first drive through wedding chapel. Brewster claims that she has experienced a 50% decline in business since city hall began providing its service.

Also in attendance at the FAC meeting was Rev. Daniel MacDonald who claimed that the London area is served by 554 registered marriage officiants. There is not enough business to go around and performing weddings is his primary source of income. Why should the city compete with him?

Then there were the Prevetts, owners of Kettle Creek Weddings, who claimed that they had experienced a 90% decline “in that type of business”, by which they apparently meant basic and no frills. According to their website, although they are located in St. Thomas, their services stretch across and include 42 municipalities in South-western Ontario.  A quick glance reveals that most of these communities provide civil ceremonies through city hall. Kettle Creek Weddings also operate in Canada. This is the Prevetts' account on their website of why they are doing this in Ontario:

"We know that many people who do not have a faith community are in need of an ordained Minister (Officiant) to perform their wedding ceremony, because in Ontario there are no marriage commissionaires to do this as there are in other provinces." Well, now there are.

The Prevetts argued that city hall not only competed with private businesses but had in fact garnered a monopoly on basic wedding services in London, because people have to go to city hall to obtain a license and applicants are not informed of alternatives for the ceremony.

This last was a point that interested Councillor Nancy Branscombe. She was clear that she supported the provision of the service but was open to a fee review and other possible adjustments. She asked if the clerk could provide a list of businesses to the public.

Saunders responded that they had done so in the past but that there had been concerns about the accuracy and completeness of the lists which could result in favouritism and frustration. Now they just point out that the Yellow Pages has listings for service providers.

The clerk had recommended raising the rates to $200 which she felt could be justified because the location of the ceremonies had been moved to the Councillor’s Lounge which needed a few upgrades that could be covered by these fees. She also recommended adding $25 for the provision of a witness. At present, London’s fees are the lowest of those reviewed, although Ottawa is a close second at $157. Most jurisdictions charge a higher fee but also provide more elaborate services, often after hours and off site.

Branscombe moved that a $200 fee be implemented and that a list of alternative businesses and officiants be provided to applicants. Councillor Paul Hubert seconded the motion. Councillor Dale Henderson tried unsuccessfully to amend that to $250. His suggestion was rejected when it was pointed out that such a hike in fees would require a full legal review. In the end, all committee members save Henderson endorsed the motion.

A small increase in fees may be warranted. But I think it is important that couples have an alternative to the religiously endorsed option when it comes to getting married. And while they have that by engaging the services of a judge or justice of the peace, I am not convinced that doing so is a responsible use of those individuals' time. We hear far too much about court backlogs and delays. A city clerk is accessible and provides the appropriate degree of authority and dignity that such a commitment requires.

And think of how much money can be saved toward home ownership if couples forgo a fancy wedding. Now that’s a way to get more assessment growth!


Anonymous said...

All this talk about the monetary aspects of marriage reminds me of what Zsa Zsa Gabor said:

"Conrad Hilton was very generous to me in the divorce settlement. He gave me 5000 Gideon Bibles."

Anon one

Bryan Gloyd said...


Thanks for this. Clark and I plan to be at City Hall in September at City Hall for our wedding.

This certainly meets our needs - it would be unfortunate if this service was pushed aside so others could make more money. We don't want value-added (if you can call it that), just the basics please.

And a drive-through wedding?? Ick!!

Best regards,
Bryan Gloyd

K said...

As our law changes to allow city workers to perpetuate the institution of marriage, the city has two obvious options:

1) earn revenue
2) provide a service

If city counselors decide to earn revenue, then I recommend to maximize city earnings from this service. If the choice is to provide a service, then I recommend to provide it like every other public service -- cheap or subsidized -- like public parks & water fountains, and public libraries.

I suggest these opposite approaches because the concept of a marriage license seems disrespectful. Thus, London should choose whether to exploit the situation for their own finances or for the financial benefit of the people who make use of the marriage. Are there benefits to marriage beyond the following two?

1) tax breaks for the two individuals named on the license
2) submission to now-popular religious beliefs

(I would argue tax breaks for the joining of two souls into one is discriminatory at both the provincial and federal levels, but that is not what this blog post is about. Or is it?

I think this may be the topic because finding a friendly individual who is on the list of duly authorized or ordained persons should be easy for those who submit to the religious arguments. What incentive to marriage is there for individuals who do not submit to the religious arguments?)

dale brewster said...

Why should i keep my comments respectfully, city hall has absolutly no respect for my small business.
Yes city hall can perform wedding, do they have to - NO, not at the expense of me having to close my business because i can not compete with a MONOPLY!
If Cathy Saunder had done research in June 2010 she would have found out that the marriage ceremony business was fine and doing well without city hall interference.
Now she want the city to spend
$20 thousand dollars in tax payer money to decorate the councilor lounge, WHAT'S NEXT someone in the clerks office says they can do bridal bouquet and wedding flowers, or another city staffer is a part-time photographer, now takes the wedding photos, the city offer the staff cafeteria for small receptions, far fetched i think not...they are going to Pay, PAID employees to be witnesses at city hall weddings.
Dale Brewster Crystal Wedding chapel

Oliver Hobson said...

City hall has no business doing 'marriages' or 'weddings'. That's church talk.

It does no more than get the paperwork in order so taxes can be levied appropriately and assets redistributed on the death of one of the two who attended.

Why they're trying to fool people into thinking they serve any other function is verging on the ridiculous.

There's nothing wrong with a good civil union.

Edna Anderson said...

As a chaplain for the Unitarian Fellowship of London, I feel that people should be allowed to make their choices according to their own wishes. We started appointing Chaplains because some churches refused to marry people who were part of the Gay Lesbian Community. I am happy that these services are ever more available to people who used to be refused these rites of passage.
Cover your costs and leave the rest up to the couple. This should not be a business decision in my humble opinion. Respectfully E. Anderson

Oliver Hobson said...

‎'Marriage'...simply another means for government to administer the concept of 'property rights' via 'lineage'. Would you like flowers with that?