Message from your Councillor
On the Prospect of Municipal Amalgamation in Niagara
With Ontario’s Regional Government Review of local municipalities now underway, the Mayor of Niagara Falls and a group of business owners from the tourism and hospitality industries appeared last month in local media promoting a Four City model for Niagara. In this model, Niagara-on-the-Lake would be amalgamated to a single city along the Niagara River including Fort Erie and Niagara Falls.
The Four Cities report and a growing list of endorsements for the idea may be found at https://fourcitiesniagara.ca/. The author and supporters have received media coverage on CKTB and in the Standard. This vision has been contrasted with One Niagara as the only other realistic option for renovating municipal governance in the Niagara peninsula. The Lord Mayor's responseand summary comments from Niagara-on-the-Lake Councillors have also appeared in local papers.
There is so much to say about the current prospect of municipal amalgamation in Niagara, and one message can’t easily sum up all of my thoughts. However, the Four Cities report has motivated me to share something on the record about this topic.
Regional Government Review
In December 2018, the Government of Ontario announced it would be reviewing the structure of regional governments at the municipal level. The entire Niagara area is in scope, along with dozens of other communities across the province. Detailed terms of reference for the review and advisory team are available online.
The Government of Ontario appointed Ken Sieling and Michael Fenn to compile public input, act as advisors and provide recommendations to Provincial Cabinet. Cabinet records have a mandatory exemption from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and it is highly unlikely that their full report will ever be released to the public. The Government of Ontario's website states that the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing may seek additional advice from the special advisors until September 30, 2019.
Public consultation for the Regional Government Review occurred earlier this year and closed on May 21. During that time, the Province invited anyone with an interest in the topic to have their say through an online survey and visits by the special advisors to affected communities. Niagara-on-the-Lake's Town Council formed a subcommittee and presented a submission to the special advisors during Sieling and Fenn's visit to Niagara Region headquarters on May 1 this year.
In Canada, Provincial Governments may create or dissolve municipalities as they see fit. This power was wielded quickly and decisively by the Government of Ontario last year to reduce the size of Toronto’s City Council by nearly 50%, and could be wielded just as swiftly in the months and years ahead in any of Ontario's rural and urban areas that are now under review.
Ontario's governing party has a majority mandate and believes they were elected on a promise to reduce the size and scope of government. The Province of Ontario is in a very dire financial situation, and there is only one taxpayer who is repeatedly drawn on by multiple levels of public administration. I am one of those taxpayers too, and believe without a doubt that the the financial efficiency of public service delivery could be vastly improved.
Unless the Provincial Government hears significant public opposition to the concept, some form of municipal amalgamation will be announced for Niagara soon. Ontario has the power to dictate a new structure for our local communities, and the current governing party has shown a strong desire to influence municipal affairs.
I have very mixed feelings on the prospect of municipal amalgamation in Niagara. As a resident I have experienced how two levels of municipal government can duplicate services and confuse responsibilities. I also sympathize with local business owners who have felt frustrated when navigating two levels of municipal regulation that can be costly and counterproductive when trying to get something done.
I also appreciate that we enjoy a clean and safe water supply, coordinated Emergency Medical Services and a region-wide police service that is accountable to the public directly through elected representatives across Niagara. I have watched with dismay how partisan interests, inflated egos and conflicting personalities have clouded the quality of governance at Regional Council tables in previous years. Yet I appreciate the original intention of Regional government in Niagara, which aimed to bring twelve widespread and unique communities together to work for common goals.
Since inauguration it has been an honour to serve as one of your elected representatives. And if the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake not existed in 2018, or if it was composed of 118,000 residents instead of 18,000, it would have been economically and logistically impossible for someone like me to canvass and campaign effectively to win a seat in a much larger ward or municipality.
I love small towns, and believe that small communities can thrive while maintaining their independence in the municipal realm: just look at what’s happening in Stratford, Cambridge, Innisfil and the Town of Lincoln these days. Of course any municipal organization could run more effectively, and that's why Niagara-on-the-Lake is issuing an RFP later this year to secure professional advice to assist with a comprehensive service delivery review.
In future, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Town Council could probably function adequately with a fewer number of elected representatives. Four councillors and one Lord Mayor might be a better fit, and make for shorter meetings. The City of Burlington, recently named by Maclean’s as the top community in Canada, is ten times our size yet operates successfully with only six Councillors and one Mayor.
If the public's goal is to reduce the number of politicians, I am very open to having that conversation. If the public's goal is to save money on the cost of governance, larger constituencies will eventually require full time councillors who will also require full time support staff, who will receive new full time salaries. Support staff can become highly influential on decision-makers and are not elected by the public. And if the public wants to be represented by people who understand their daily lives, having to leave an active career in order to serve as a full-time elected official creates a huge disincentive for any working person or business owner to ever consider running for public office.
In a Perfect World
If it was my call to make, my primary wish for municipal governance in Niagara would be to see the existing Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake continue as a lower tier municipality in a streamlined regional system. Given that Niagara has an unusually high number of elected officials compared to surrounding municipal areas, a reduction in total number of councillors in the upper and lower tiers could occur with local councils cut to roughly half of their current numbers, and Regional councillor roles eliminated altogether. The Mayors and Lord Mayor would then effectively govern the regional area together as a collective of twelve municipal leaders with a Regional Chair chosen from among their ranks.
Ongoing service delivery reviews and a culture of continuous improvement would regularly identify areas for streamlining of operations in every municipality, to reduce the duplication and redundancy of effort that has occurred since the Region's creation nearly 50 years ago. Land use planning would shift away from the Region and come entirely under the control of local councils in the lower tier, who are best positioned to represent the desires and interests of local residents in shaping the future of their communities.
In the Real World
This is not my call to make, and that vision might not suit the current moment. So if some form of amalgamation is inevitable for Niagara, and if I have to choose between the two alternatives that have been proposed so far by Four Cities and One Niagara, my preference is firmly with the latter.
Why One Niagara Makes Sense
Now that a region-wide approach to water supply, police services and EMS has been established, one Niagara has the greatest potential to maintaining the same quality of coordinated service delivery in these areas. The Region’s current woes with waste collection and capital project delays would be remedied by choosing the best possible contractors to do these important jobs, instead of accepting the false economy presented by lowest tender bids. I do not support the idea of dividing our local drinking water, ambulance, long term care, mental health, child care and police services in to separately governed zones. The need for region-wide transit and truly affordable housing across all communities are two further examples of how a regional approach to service delivery is best positioned to have the greatest possible benefit to the greatest number of people.
One Niagara would also make it easier and more streamlined for former municipalities to truly work together on common issues and goals. The farming and economic development profile of Niagara-on-the-Lake shares a great deal in common with the Town of Lincoln, and many of our residents who are concerned about land use planning have shared interests with the residents of Grimsby. The recent revitalization of Fenwick's historic downtown offers a great example that we could follow in the centre of Virgil. Opioid addiction and homelessness are crises in Niagara Falls as much as they are in St. Catharines. Every local municipality wants to achieve greater economic growth and cultivate a successful environment where businesses can thrive.
For attracting investment, visitors and future generations of residents, one Niagara would also allow all communities in the region to present themselves with the intrinsic meaning of "Niagara" as a very special place. The word Niagara has economic value, and all of the unique areas in our peninsula should be able to enjoy the benefits of this meaningful association.
Why Not Four Cities
I am not confident in the validity of data and financial analysis included in the Four Cities report, which makes incredibly ambitious claims about the amount of tax savings that may be possible under their proposed model. I also question who will be held responsible if the public believes these claims, offers support to Four Cities, lobbies the Province to make the model a reality, and then is disappointed when the promised savings of $98 million each year never materialize.
Further, the Four Cities model appears to be driven entirely by members of the Niagara Falls and St. Catharines tourism and hospitality industries. Although these are undeniably critical sectors in our local economy today, hotel and restaurant owners do not democratically represent or by default speak for the thousands of residents and business owners who operate outside of those sectors and live in our communities year-round.
I am deeply concerned that Niagara-on-the-Lake’s farming community receives no acknowledgment whatsoever in the Four Cities model. The word "agriculture" does not appear anywhere in their report except for a reference to the proposed new municipality of West Niagara. What Four Cities may intend for the future of Niagara-on-the-Lake's farming community and specialty crop lands is completely unclear, and farming is entirely absent from the brief description of Niagara-on-the-Lake and what it represents as a community. This is an incredibly significant omission, given that our municipality was built on farming and includes some of the most productive soils and climate in all of North America.
Creating four cities with populations of 100,000 will also send multiple Mayors from the Niagara area to LUMCO, the Large Urban Mayor's Caucus of Ontario. This body is a well respected and strong voice for municipalities in the province. If Niagara is divided in to four cities, there will immediately be at least two different voices at that table between the Mayors of St. Catharines and the new Niagara Falls. Without effective coordination, the broader interests of Niagara peninsula residents could easily be lost if and when those Mayors do not see eye to eye.
Finally, the alignment of municipal or ward boundaries with provincial and federal ridings as proposed by Four Cities is a serious mistake that has the potential to introduce an unwanted and unhelpful influence from political parties on municipal governance. These alignments will also give future municipal council candidates who may have partisan affiliations with political parties a unique and unfair advantage when campaigning, if the parties choose to share data that is collected and retained on riding demographics, polling and voter turnout.
Long before there were political parties, nations or provinces, there were towns and cities. Municipalities are the world’s oldest form of government, closest to the people and most independent of party influence. I would like us to keep that independence. Public discourse needs an open space for decision-making where energies are focused on actual community needs and how to satisfy them, rather than on whose team colours are showing.
What Happens Next
If you are interested in the Regional Government Review and the future of our municipal organizations, please speak up on this subject, and express your views to elected officials at the Provincial level. The Honourable Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, announced at a recent event in Niagara that any changes to the municipal realm may not occur as soon as first thought. The Government of Ontario has repeatedly shown through their first year in power that they are willing to adjust direction when members of the public speak with a strong voice. This Government presented themselves as being "for the people" and should be held to that standard.
If you would like to connect for further discussion and comment, please reach me directly via email or phone. I will not be engaging in conversations on this topic that may appear on social media. I will however be available to meet in person or via phone and welcome hearing your delegations and views in the Council Chamber, which belongs to the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake and is our official forum for public debate.
It remains a profound honour to be one of your elected representatives on Town Council. Whatever the final outcome of Ontario's Regional Government Review may be, I remain committed in my role as your Councillor and Deputy Lord Mayor to achieving the very highest quality of public service possible for all of our residents, regardless of how much longer our unique and remarkable Town may continue to exist as a distinct organization.
Clare Cameron Municipal Councillor and Deputy Lord Mayor Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake
firstname.lastname@example.org www.clarecameronnotl.com 905-246-3682