By Rob Houle, St. Catharines Standard
Double-duty appears to have the necessary support at Niagara Region to move forward.
St. Catharines city council voted Monday night to fill the vacancy created by Al Caslin's ascension to Niagara Region chair with Matt Harris, who would serve double duty as a city and regional councillor. Such a scenario is not allowed under the Municipal Act, which, while allowing city councillor Harris to be appointed to the Region, does not allow him to hold both positions. The city is asking regional councillors to support its initiative as a pilot project and to request legislative approval from the minister of municipal affairs and housing.
Of the regional councillors contacted Tuesday to gauge whether they are supportive of St. Catharines city council's initiative, most said they are.
Many, such as Caslin, support the will of council.
"Harris has got a lot of experience," Caslin said. "And I certainly welcome St. Catharines' recommendation for what they believe to be the best solution for the seat at the Region. With respect to that, I think Matt is one of those guys who is going to bring St. Catharines priorities to the table, but also has the ability to respect what we're trying to do here in terms of economic growth in Niagara and moving forward with our strategic plans."
Some, like Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati, Fort Erie regional Coun. Sandy Annunziata and Grimsby regional Coun. Tony Quirk, said they are supportive because of a perceived "disconnect" between municipalities and the regional government.
"Seeing that a bunch of other regions are currently using that system, I definitely see some of the advantages," Diodati said. "And the biggest ones is it erases the disconnect between the municipalities and the Region. There's more of a connectivity and overall understanding of the big picture of how it all comes together — the spokes and hub. The spokes being the municipalities and the hub being the Region, and how they all come together and interact. As a mayor, we're double direct, and I can tell you you have a less myopic view of what's going on."
Others, such as St. Catharines regional Coun. Bruce Timms said they are supportive because they have long favoured the double-duty model that would see part-time politicians become full-time councillors.
"I was very pleased that St. Catharines council has changed their mind, with the new council with a new position on the double-direct approach," Timms said. "I never expected that this is the way it might come back to the table, but I'm very pleased about it."
St. Catharines city council voted against double-direct duty in December 2013.
Tim Rigby of St. Catharines, who as the seventh-place finisher in the municipal election was appointed to the Region in 2006 when Peter Partington was voted chair, said he would support city council's wishes only if the minister of municipal affairs moves quickly.
"If the minister indicated that he'd look at it quickly, then I would be OK with it," Rigby said. "I think it's unfair to the city and citizens of St. Catharines — I think they need to have all six councillors plus the mayor at those (Region) meetings."
Rookie regional Coun. Debbie MacGregor of St. Catharines said double-duty discussion should have taken place before the October election and that seventh-place finisher Kelly Edgar should have been appointed by city council.
"I respect that they have — they being the City of St. Catharines — have the right to make this decision, I don't necessarily agree with their choice, and it's not about the who, it's the how. It should have been decided before everyone went to the polls."
Thorold regional Coun. Henry D'Angela said he has been an advocate of double-direct duty, but "if it was my choice, I would do it in advance of the election, not after the election." That being said, D'Angela said he was leaning towards supporting the will of St. Catharines council.
While he is supportive of double-duty representation, West Lincoln Mayor Doug Joyner said it is something that should be looked at over the next four years with an eye to possibly implementing it in 2018.
"The Municipal Act is very clear, you cannot wear two hats," Joyner said, noting he was prevented from seeking the regional chair's position because had he been elected chair he would have had to resign as mayor.
"What's good for the goose is good for the gander."
St. Catharines regional Coun. Brian Heit, who attended Monday night's city council meeting, said he rejects the decision because councillors didn't get a "wholesome report to review that option. It was thrown at them by the mayor."
Heit said he feared the cost to the city for a ward by-election to replace Harris should he be accepted as a regional councillot, but rejected as a dual councillor.
"Everyone says they don't want to spend money, but now they could force a by-election," Heit said.
Heit noted regional council already has double-duty councillors — Niagara's 12 mayors.
"We've been experimenting for 44 years with a dual role with a mayor, don't give me that this is going to be a good experiment, we can see if this is any better."
Heit said the disconnect between the Region and 12 Niagara municipalities has been bridged over the last year or so following the hiring of Harry Schlange as CAO and the team he has put in place.
Welland Mayor Frank Campion, Wainfleet Mayor April Jeffs, Welland regional Coun. George Marshall and Niagara Falls regional Coun. Bob Gale said they were undecided which way they would vote pending more information, but were leaning towards supporting the will of St. Catharines council.