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Let Niagara voters choose the regional chair

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Regional council's recent record suggests maybe the citizens could do a better job of deciding who the chair should be

By Niagara Dailies Editorial, St. Catharines Standard

Seriously? Another municipal election is going to pass us by without voters being able to choose the chair of Niagara Region?

Mayors lead our city and town councils — we elect them. So why do we have to leave it up to the wisdom of our local politicians to choose a regional chair for us?

Remember, it was only two elections ago, in 2014, when regional councillors put their heads together and decided Alan Caslin of St. Catharines was the best person for the job.

What followed was four years of incompetence, scheming, and preferential treatment in the hiring of some senior managers. It was all revealed in the Standard’s series of articles titled All The Chair’s Men, and in an ombudsman’s report called Inside Job.

There are still unsettled lawsuits stemming from circumstances that occurred between 2014 and 2018.

True, the current chair, Jim Bradley, has brought a quiet competence to the position since being chosen by council in 2018.

It’s also true, the bar had been set pretty low by the time he took office.

Waterloo Region voters directly elect their regional chair. So do residents in Halton Region. So why are Niagara voters denied that right?

It nearly happened, back in 2018.

Regional council had agreed the chair should be elected directly by voters in 2018.

But then the Ford provincial government, elected that summer, stepped in with all the finesse of a ballerina in stilettos.

Premier Doug Ford himself called an elected regional chair in Niagara just “another layer of politicians.” He scuttled the plan for direct election, killing similar electoral races in Muskoka, Peel and York at the same time.

Now that the 2014-2018 term appears to be just a dark, distant memory for local politicians, there appears to be no appetite to revisit the issue.

Speaking to Niagara Dailies reporter Allan Benner this week, St. Catharines regional Coun. Laura Ip recalled that when she brought up the issue in 2020 at the corporate services committee, it was roundly rejected in an 11-2 vote

“They mashed it into the ground and stomped on it a few times,” Ip recalled, with a laugh.

True, the situation at Niagara regional council has returned to its usual stable, businesslike — OK, bland with a few notable exceptions — order of operation.

Why rock a boat that is sailing gently along?

Because you don’t plan for the good days. They’ll take care of themselves. You plan for the rainy days.

It was only eight years ago that council bungled its choice for the position of regional chair, and the resulting furor took a lot of taxpayer-generated funds to sort out.

It is time that the responsibility for making that choice is taken away from elected officials and handed to local voters.

If you believe having council elect its own chair is such a great idea, then you would probably also support eliminating the direct election of mayors.

We could do that, and just let city and town councillors choose the mayor.

It’s the same thing.

Niagara’s regional chair is paid an annual salary of more than $135,000. That’s at least $540,000 over the four-year term.

If regional council was awarding a contract to a private business for that amount — say, for snow plowing or cleaning services — it couldn’t just choose its favourite company.

The project would have to go to tender first, before the best candidate company was awarded the contract.

It should be the same for the position of regional chair. It might be too late this time, but it’s not too late for voters in October’s municipal vote to ask candidates if they support direct election and demand planning start so voters can choose the chair in 2026.

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