Niagara regional council is 75% new - and the public is watching

Niagara residents have booted 75 per cent of their regional council. Now the new one has to prove itself.

Niagara booted 75 per cent of its regional council, and now the new one has to deliver

Former MPP Jim Bradley is one of 23 new Niagara regional councillors. He's widely tapped to be the next chair. (Jim Ross/The Canadian Press)

Laura Ip is used to a fight. And when December hits, she'll have a big one.

Ip, founder of the Underdogs Boxing Club, is part of an elected Niagara Region council where all but eight of its 31 members are new. On Oct. 22, Niagara residents booted out 75 per cent of council, demanding accountable politicians with transparent motives.

Now the new council has to deliver.

The previous council was plagued with scandals, including allegations of cronyism and bullying of citizens and media. Ip pledged transparency, and won.

Now, "we've got an expense policy we have to fix," she said. "We've got the code of conduct we've got to fix. We've got the election of the chair."

"We can't take a year to learn all of these things before we start taking action. There are some things we've going to have to take action on right away in order to communicate to the public that they can, in fact, trust us."

Laura Ip founded the Underdogs Boxing Club for survivors of domestic abuse. She's one of the new regional councillors. (Laura Ip)

The regional council turnover in Niagara is unprecedented, says David Siegel, a Brock University political scientist. But it wasn't a surprise.

Niagara residents have become increasingly angry, for example, at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA), which has regional councillors on its board.

There's a perception, says regional councillor-elect Jim Bradley, that the NPCA is more interested in money than protecting natural resources.

An auditor general report this year found the NPCA had "significant operational issues." Those included board members who overstepped their bounds. Resident Ed Smith also compiled a report critical of the authority, and the authority sued him.

There were issues with the media too. Last December, for example, regional staff called the police on St. Catharines Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk. Sawchuk, they alleged, was secretly recording an in-camera session. An Ontario Ombudsman investigation found that he wasn't, and his removal was "unjust and wrong."

Only eight councillors are returning on the 31-member council. (Google Maps)

Then this spring, the Standard published a series of investigative articles around the hiring of CAO Carmen D'Angelo. Regional chair Alan Caslin, it says, gave D'Angelo the questions before his job interview. Then Caslin, the Standard reported, unilaterally extended D'Angelo's contract.

People paid attention. During the campaign, "people were angry," Ip said. "And they knew exactly why they were angry."

Caslin ran for regional council reelection in St. Catharines. He placed 20th out of 23 candidates. Sandy Annunziata, the Fort Erie regional councillor who chaired the NPCA, suffered a surprise loss to a political newbie.

"There's never been that much turnover before on council," Siegel said. "There was really quite a clean sweep here, and honestly, I think some good people were swept out with the bad."

'Number of missteps'

Bruce Timms, a 27-year regional councillor, lost his race. He's reflective now about the "number of missteps" the public found unforgivable.

D'Angelo's hiring, Timms said, was "very badly handled." And the NPCA, which Timms has chaired, shouldn't have taken Smith to court.

Usually, "regional government just doesn’t attract much attention," says David Siegel, an expert in municipal government. That changed this time. (www.brocku.ca)

Timms said he and others wanted the regional chair to be elected at large. Right now, it's selected among council ranks. Niagara expected a public regional chair election this time, but Premier Doug Ford called it off when he adjusted the size of Toronto city council.

"I'm disappointed," Timms said, "because the restructuring of the region needs to continue."

As for his own future, he doesn't think he'll run again. "I'm 65," he said. "I'm retired from most things."

Public will be watching

Bradley is a former 41-year St. Catharines MPP unseated by June's anti-Liberal tide. Residents are writing letters urging the new council to elect Bradley as chair.

Bradley is interested. He's a diplomat, he said. That's what council needs right now.

"There has been a lot of disruption over the last four years," he said. "There are genuine problems that have existed here."

Right away, he said, the new council has to show a course correction.

"The public is going to be looking for that."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca