Province announces plans to examine future of local municipalities
by Allan Benner The St. Catharines Standard
Niagara Region Chair Jim Bradley says he is ready to work with the province as it reviews Niagara's governance this spring.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark announced Tuesday afternoon that Niagara will be part of a provincial review of all eight of Ontario's regional municipalities that will look for ways to find efficiencies, enhance services and cut costs.
Bradley said he plans to be part of the consultation process for the months to come as part of that review, adding "it's incumbent upon municipalities to participate, as opposed to sit back and wait for whatever happens to happen."
Niagara Centre MPP Jeff Burch, the NDP's municipal affairs critic, however, accused the province of "unilaterally pursuing amalgamation" through the review.
Burch said "the pattern of this government has been really to impose its will on to governing bodies," referring to abrupt changes made leading up to the Oct. 22 municipal election.
"They've already reduced the size of Toronto council without asking anyone," he said. "They're obviously not afraid to do things undemocratically, and that's what I'm worried about."
Rather than "imposing its will on other levels of government," he said the province should be focused on issues that people are concerned about — such as transit, jobs and health care.
Although the province has not ruled out the potential of amalgamating municipalities, Bradley said "there's no agenda that I see yet for amalgamations" within the plans for the review.
"I think that's wide open, and I think they'll want to assess what would be positive for each of the areas," he said.
Bradley said the provincial government undertook a similar review in the in the late 1990s that "had different results."
"I think the government eventually abandoned it because there was some considerable opposition. There were some major changes that were made at that time," he said, referring to mega-cities that were established as a result.
Bradley said the unique characteristics each of the regions, such as geography and transportation needs must be considered.
Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce government relations policy director Hugo Chesshire said if the review does ultimately lead to amalgamations of Niagara municipalities, he said "it's important that we take our time to do it right."
Chesshire said, for instance, an amalgamated region — there are 12 lower-tier governments within —could "potentially make things more efficient, but we have to do the research first to make sure that what we're doing for certain."
Bradley said he was reassured Tuesday to learn that some "very good people" were appointed as special advisers to conduct the review, consulting with residents and business representatives.
"I've known Ken Seiling for years. I worked with him as a provincial minister and I'm aware of what he's done in Waterloo. Certainly, he's a person that people respect," he said, referring to the longtime chair of Waterloo Region.
And Michael Fenn also brings considerable experience to the table, particularly in the area of transportation, Bradley added.
"I think at the end of the day they're going to be open-minded," Bradley said.
"I think people are going to provide objective and positive information to the government. Everyone, I think, will want to participate in that and share with these individuals ideas on how the goals can be accomplished."
Burch said he, too, was comforted to know that Seiling and Fenn would at least be asking for people's opinions.
"But how that consultation is used is really the important thing," Burch said. "Will they listen to the results? And how much time and how much capital are we going to spend when there are other more important issues to look at?"