Niagara delegates want clarification on Bill 5
by Allan Benner The St. Catharines Standard
Ontario's premier might have misjudged the wishes of Niagara voters when it comes to electing the regional chair, according to local delegates attending this week's Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference in Ottawa.
"He has no idea the value that the people of Niagara place on the opportunity to elect the chair at large," said St. Catharines Coun. Bruce Timms.
Monday, Premier Doug Ford told AMO delegates that Bill 5 — the Better Local Government Act — would make municipal governments more efficient by cancelling the at-large election of regional chairs in Niagara, as well as York, Peel and Muskoka, while also cutting the size of Toronto city council in half.
"The Liberals imposed these new elected regional chairs in 2016, and the last thing any municipality needs is yet another layer of elected politicians," Ford said during the conference, which continues until Wednesday in Ottawa. "That's not how you make better decisions by having more politicians," he added.
Despite Ford's statement, Welland Coun. Paul Grenier said "our disappointment was obvious" after Ford cancelled the regional chair election.
"It was unfair," he said.
And Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn, who registered as a candidate for regional chair before that election was scrapped, said he will be asking for clarification when he meets with Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark on Wednesday. Because, he said, Ford "didn't cover it effectively at all in terms of what the changes meant."
Augustyn said Ford's reference to "another layer of elected politicians" implies that the province may be considering eliminating the two-tiered system of municipal government entirely.
"I don't know what that means or bodes for our two-tiered system in Niagara," Augustyn said.
Timms hopes Ford's interest in eliminating a layer of elected representation might make him more receptive to a renewed effort to allowing dual-duty councillors in Niagara.
Although St. Catharines city council shot down efforts to do that more than a year and a half ago, putting an end to the issue at the time, Timms said implementing dual-duty councillors across the Region — while also allowing voters to elect the regional chair — would be a better way to reduce the number of politicians.
"He's talking about that we don't need a fourth layer of politicians, but I don't see how that relates to electing the chair at large," Timms said. "To me it relates far more to the layer of politicians being the regional councillors with no seat at the city table. That's the unnecessary fourth layer. The opportunity to eliminate using double duty, we're going to put city councillors at the regional table."
Timms said he hopes to meet with Ford to discuss the situation in Niagara. "My intention is to approach him from the point of view of reducing that fourth level of politicians by eliminating the regional councillor and bringing Niagara Region into the same pattern as Halton Region," Timms said. But Augustyn said he has remaining concerns about dual-duty councillors, especially considering the "issues and challenges that we have now at the Region."
"If folks are doing the things that they're doing and promising votes for other people in order to get positions which happened this term, and some of the things that have happened with the hiring of the CAO, what does that mean if you have politicians that aren't part time," he said.
"I think people would be opposed to that."
Grenier, however, said Niagara needs to prepare — just in case the province does eliminate a level of government. "The idea is now that we need to be front and centre talking about what regional government means," Grenier said. "And if we come to that, we can add that the leader of the chair of that government be directly elected by the public. And we have 3½ years to make that case."