Minister vows mayors, councils will be consulted during regional government review
Municipal affairs minister says amalgamations are not key focus of review
Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark says the Ontario government will use what he calls a "handshake approach" when it conducts a review of regional governments this year.
In an interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Wednesday, Clark said communities will be consulted throughout the formal review of 82 municipalities.
That means elected and appointed officials and residents will have a chance to talk to the two experts — Michael Fenn and Ken Seiling — conducting the assessment, he said.
Amalgamations not the focus, Clark says
The province has not ruled out amalgamations, but Clark said they are not the focus of the appraisal. Fenn and Seiling are expected to make recommendations to the province by early summer.
On Monday, Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward told reporters that she is cautiously optomistic about the process.
"We're all about finding efficiencies, there's no argument there. But you don't do it with a hatchet, you do it with a handshake," she said.
Metro Morning host Matt Galloway spoke with Clark about what the government is trying to accomplish and how.
Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Matt Galloway: Why is your government doing this now?
Steve Clark: Well, Ontario's regional municipalities were established in the mid 1970s. They are almost 50 years old and a lot has changed over 50 years. Populations have grown, infrastructure pressures have mounted, and hard-earned taxpayers dollars are being stretched. So we started a casual conversation back last August at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference. I made it clear at that time that we would, at some point, move forward with a more formal process.
MG: What are you looking for?
SC: Our government is looking for ways to improve governance, decision-making and service delivery in those 82 upper and lower municipalities being examined. There's a lot of concerns that have been raised over the years about regional governments. Some mayors have very strong opinions about whether the regional government system is working. But I don't want to impose any decision.
I want my two advisors to be able to be free to talk to elected officials, appointed officials within those regions, interested parties, local citizens. And really, the focus is improving governance, decision-making and service delivery.
MG: Can you be more specific in terms of the concerns that you've heard about regional governance?
SC: Well, obviously there's been a desire by some local governments for greater autonomy. There are challenges with paying for infrastructure. In some cases, there are conflicting local priorities with perhaps those at the region. And there are also concerns about representation on regional councils that, in some cases, may not be aligned with populations that are in fast growing municipalities.
There might be some people that have concerns about the different levels of council representation within the region. There's a lot of different competing voices out there. But I really want the two advisors to be free to have formal conversations, conversations directly with councillors.
MG: Is there the possibility that some regional governments could be amalgamated?
SC: Well, that's not the focus. Again, I want people to be free to talk to the advisors about what they think the priorities are. Right now, in the Municipal Act, if two municipalities want to have that conversation, they're free to have the conversation. They're free to sit around the table as two councils and talk about that issue.
This is focusing on those 80 regions and the county of Simcoe. And the reason we've added the county of Simcoe is because it has regional government pressures. It's a very fast growing area and we want to be able to have the two advisors look at that county as well.
MG: The last time there was a Progressive Conservative government in power in Ontario, the City of Toronto went through this. The city and its surrounding regions were amalgamated in the hopes of finding what were called 'cost efficiencies.' Were there 'cost efficiencies' made by that process?
SC: The difference in this process is that we started last fall consulting and having conversations with municipalities. The announcement this week was the appointment of the two advisors to continue that consultation. One of the mayors, that you're having on from Burlington, talked about the hatchet versus the handshake.
This is the handshake approach that I think many mayors want. They want to be able to look the advisor in the face and have an honest conversation about what they think works. And I've made it very clear, right from the start, that we also want to focus on things that are working well.
Over 50 years, there are some success stories with our regional governments and we want to be able to build upon those successes. And the things that haven't worked out well, we want to be able to have an honest conversation about the possibility of changing it.
MG: What did your government learn from ramming reform down Toronto's throat this summer?
SC: Well, again, it was two different situations. Again, in terms of regional government, and I've had many conversations with our municipal partners, they want to have consultations with us. We went out of that AMO conference as a government having a record of the most meetings we've ever had at that particular conference. My colleagues and I want to build upon that. We want to ensure that communities know and feel that they've been consulted and their input is going to help us.
MG: And so why is this process different than what happened with the City of Toronto. I mean, there are two different approaches here.
SC: I want to make sure, as minister of municipal affairs — and I've said this to the mayor and I've said this to a number of councillors that I've met since the election and since they were sworn in on December 1 — my message to them is I want to work with them, regardless of Bill 5 and what happened. There's a 25-person council that I wanted to be effective and efficient and I wanted to work together. I've made it clear, I want to build housing. I want to build infrastructure. I want to work with them on their transit priorities. That's that's what I want to do. And I think I've got a pretty good response so far from the councillors that I have spoken to.
MG: Do you understand why some of them might be concerned. Just finally with the fact that the hatchet might come rather than the handshake.
SC: Well, you know, there is a fiscal worry here. We did inherit a $15-billion deficit. Tax dollars are scarce. But I want to make sure that we that we get it right, that we have the opportunity to listen.
There are two very experienced people here, two very respected individuals who know their way around Ontario's municipal governments. I want people in those 82 communities, I want their mayors and their councillors and their municipal staff to feel free to give us their ideas on what works and what doesn't work.
Again, we want to make sure that governance is improved, that services are delivered in an effective and efficient manner. That's the whole goal of what we're proposing.
MG: Just finally there's no love lost between your government and Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton. Are you trying to amalgamate him out of a job?
SC: Again, this is part of a consultation. And you know, I served with his worship, and I know he'll give me some straight advice, and my advisors some straight advice, in this process.
With files from Metro Morning