Ken Seiling spent 33 years at the helm of Waterloo Region, helping to steer the municipality through many changes. Though now retired, he may be involved in more transformations. That will depend, however, on what comes of the province’s review of regional governments.
Seiling was selected as one of two special advisors for the Ford government’s review, which will see some nine upper-tier governments and 73 lower-tier governments put under the microscope – and possibly on the dissection table as well. Along with former deputy minister Michael Fenn, he’ll be advising Queen’s Park about possible changes to the structure of regional governance.
Locally, the review has raised concerns of the possibility of amalgamation, with the smaller townships facing the risk of being absorbed by their bigger neighbours.
“There’s not a lot I can say to you right now,” said Seiling in an interview this week. “We’re just designing the consultation and trying to get a handle on how we’re going to proceed, because it’s a pretty short timeframe to do such a major review. So I really can’t say much more than I’m pleased to be working with Michael Fenn.”
The timing is indeed tight, as the special advisors will have until the summer to complete their interviews and research, and submit their recommendations on the 82 municipalities. They’ll be answering such specific questions as “are two-tier structures appropriate for all of these municipalities?” and “does the distribution of councillors represent the residents well?”
“The timeframe is rather short but hopefully we can get a lot accomplished in that period of time. It’s a pretty far-ranging review, and we’ll have to see where it takes us,” said Seiling.
“At the end of the day, what they do is their determination. All we can do is give them our best opinion of what we see and what we hear and what we think they should be doing. But at the end of the day it will be the government that makes the decision as to what to do.”
Over the course of the review, the advisors will be tasked with meeting municipal politicians and stakeholders from the 82 municipalities. Seiling says he’s keen to listen to the advice and opinions received; but whether that willingness will be mirrored by the province has yet to be seen.
When the Ford government chose to redraw the ward boundaries for Toronto council last year – which served as the precursor for the current review – no input was sought from either council or residents.
Moreover, the only government review on the city’s wards was conducted by the city itself two years earlier. Taking two years to complete in 2016, “The Toronto Ward Boundary Review” recommended the number of city wards be expanded from 44 wards to 47, in direct opposition to the Ford government’s eventual decision to reduce city wards from 47 to 25.
“Well I think that it is quite different in the Toronto decision. I mean, that was done quite differently than this,” said Seiling. “Did you see anybody appointed to do a review of Toronto before they did it? So it’s quite different.”
“I would like to think they were looking for good advice. If I didn’t think they were looking for advice, I wouldn’t have been involved in it,” he added.
Though Seiling seemed to leave politics behind when he stepped down as regional chair, he is hoping his years of experience can help the province make an informed decision.
“I thought, well, if I have experience, if my knowledge and that of Michael Fenn’s can help this government make good decisions. At the end of the day, you can’t complain after the fact that you’ve been given an opportunity to give advice, and you turned the opportunity down. I think I’ve always looked to make things better in municipal government, and so I thought this was an opportunity potentially to do that.
“I think anybody who offers advice to the government does it with the full knowledge that the government may or may not take their advice,” said Seiling. “[But] as I said earlier, we can’t blame government’s if they ask for our advice and we refused to give it to them.”