When the Ford government took a knife to Toronto council last year, slashing in half the number of municipal seats just prior to the election, municipalities the province over were left with the vague caution that they, too, could be next. Smaller governments signalled less representation, which for the townships raised the prospects of another amalgamation drive.
With Waterloo Region now included in the province’s ambitiously timed review – which will see 82 upper- and lower-tier governments across Ontario be examined in just five months – local politicians worry about a one-size-fits-all approach.
“In principle, it never hurts to take a look at how you’re working together, and how you’re operating and where you can do better,” said Woolwich Mayor Sandy Shantz. “I guess my concern, if you want, the flipside of it is that there’s not a foregone conclusion as to what the answer is. Or an expectation, that the answer will be the same in every municipality.”
Two special advisors will be heading up the province’s review, including Ken Seiling, previous chair of the Region of Waterloo for the past 33 years and a former Woolwich mayor. Seiling, a resident of Elmira, will be joined in the advisory role by Michael Fenn, a former provincial deputy minister and municipal chief administrator in Hamilton and Burlington.
The pair will be tasked with meeting government heads and stakeholders from the 73 sub-municipalities and nine upper-tier governments included in the review, including Halton, Durham, Peel, York and Simco.
“There’s a lot of moving parts to this. It’s not just a simple issue to deal with,” said Wellesley Mayor Joe Nowak. “I think, one of the first things I would say to Ken [Seiling and Michael Fenn] is that in my opinion, the two-tier system is working and working very well in Waterloo Region.”
The advisory committee will have until the summer to find answers to some tough questions posed by the province, including “Are two-tier structures appropriate for all of these municipalities?” and, “Does the existing model support the capacity of the municipalities to make decisions efficiently?”
The broad scope of the review, coupled with the truncated timelines, has the local politicians questioning the effectiveness of the whole process, as well as the province’s intentions. The review hadn’t been given nearly enough time to properly solicit the opinions of communities and come up with solutions, suggested Shantz.
“No. I mean, if he was only doing Waterloo Region, maybe,” said Shantz. “But they’re not. They’re looking across the province. So by the end of June – it’s the end January now – that’s five months. That’s not very much time for people to pull together and try to come up with some kind of modelling that would really be well thought out.”
While Ford sought no public input in Toronto when he redrew the city’s wards last year, both mayors expressed hope that the province would take the advice of municipalities this time around.
“We’re getting mixed messages,” said Nowak. “I think the government owes it to us to provide a little more clarity on what sort of direction they want to take. Just recently, Bill 66, section 10, that would actually give the municipality of Wellesley Township more authority to overwrite some of the planning regulations.
“So on one hand we would be given more authority on those issues, on the other hand in a municipal review, in an amalgamated community, we would be getting less authority. To me, I’m very unclear what they’re trying to prove.”
“My optimistic side would say that they should listen to all the voices,” said Shantz. “So the council voices and the community voices. I guess my optimistic side would like to believe they would do that.”
Ultimately, however, the final decision of the review rests with the province, which has the ultimate authority over its municipal charges.
“Whether it goes in this direction or not I’m not sure, but my concern is the erosion of our residents ability to access local government, to engage in some of the local decision making and the whole principle of democracy,” said Nowak. “In an amalgamated municipality, that would be for us, for Wellesley Township, I think that would be severely restricted.”