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Governance back on the table

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19 Jul 2013

Niagara This Week - St. Catharines

The public will have its say on a proposed change to how the city is represented at the regional level prior to any decision by city council.

During a July 8 council meeting, councillors voted to wait until September to debate whether or not they would like to seek a dual-role councillor model at Niagara Region — a system where six city councillors would sit on regional council, in addition to their duties on city council. The delay was put forth to provide the public an opportunity to provide input on the proposal at meetings in July, August and September, leading to a possible decision shortly after.

The move garnered criticism, however, from one of its advocates. Coun. Mathew Siscoe said he disagrees completely with the move to delay the discussion. He fears the delay won’t enable the city to secure the approvals it needs from the region, and province before the end of the year to push for change in time for the 2014 election.

“Council made a decision tonight that they don’t want to change governance models for the 2014 election,” Siscoe said after the July 8 meeting. “I’m still hopeful but four months is a very short period for three levels of government to make a decision.”

Coun. Peter Secord agreed it is time sensitive, saying the time is “now.” He suggested the city should make a decision prior to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario’s annual meeting in August.

“We’re not going to get it in before the next election,” Secord warned.

City clerk Bonnie Nistico-Dunk clarified, however, that Dec. 31, 2013 would be the deadline, and councillors ultimately voted 8-3 to go to the public before making a decision.

“Political representation affects the public,” said Coun. Mark Elliott, expressing concern the city was “rushing through” the process.

Some councillors were also concerned about the information they were provided. Coun. Bill Phillips said he would like to see more detail about the double-duty councillors, including what the financial implications would be.

“I don’t have the information … to really support this,” he said.

Another, Coun. Jeff Burch, said he would like to see a staff report on the issue. He said the report presented to council is a recommendation from the governance committee, and overlooks other governance options available to the city.

“I felt the report didn’t really reflect what the governance committee did,” Burch said in an interview after the meeting. “I think we need to see what all of our options are to make a more informed decision.”

Any decision made by city council would have to be approved at the regional level by a triple majority vote, before it could be sent to the province. Burch, however, wonders whether there is even full support locally for the double-duty councillor initiative.

“I don’t think it’s an option that has enough support to pass through St. Catharines council,” he said, adding he would like to see a reform that takes into account the new federal and provincial boundaries, and focuses on representation at the region by population.

The desire for change goes beyond the municipal council table. Regional Councillor Bruce Timms has been vocal in his support of the double-direct model. He said council’s taking a “great step forward” but also fears the timing may become an issue.

“It’s important to seek public input, but we’re losing time here,” Timms said in an interview last week. “There is a feeling in the public that regional government needs to be fixed and we need to work towards that.”

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