The province’s review of regional governments stems from Doug Ford’s attempt to interfere with former PC leader Patrick Brown’s political comeback.
Along with payback to his former Toronto council colleagues – cutting their numbers in half just prior to municipal vote – Ford also blocked elections in Peel Region where, just coincidentally, Brown was running for the chair’s position. (He was eventually elected mayor of Brampton.)
As cover for that move, the Conservatives have launched a review of the regional governments and their lower-tier municipalities. That immediately raised the specter of amalgamation, a big issue under the former PC administration. That former Waterloo Region chair Ken Seiling, an advocate for the single-tier structure, was brought into the process does perhaps not bode well.
Of course, Seiling should be very much aware of the perils of amalgamation, particularly to the autonomy and democratic voice of smaller municipalities like Woolwich, where he lives and used to be mayor, and Wellesley townships.
More pragmatically, he and everyone else involved in the review should know that amalgamation does not work. It doesn’t deliver on the buzzwords used to justify it, cost savings, efficiency and smaller government among them. In fact, the opposite is generally true in the cases of amalgamation compelled by the Mike Harris Tories in places such as Hamilton and Brant.
Removing direct local representation for a gamble on reduced costs hasn’t paid off, and never will. Moreover, people have ties to their communities, and like to have direct access to their municipal politicians, who have the largest impact on their day-to-day lives.
While optimizing some services may be advantageous – over the years, we’ve seen that happen with police services and, more recently, transit – but that’s a far cry removed from discussing single-tier government. Even talks to regionalize fire protection or water and sewer services seem doomed to eternal bickering.
In the townships, the loss of direct say over planning and other issues is too big a price to pay, though ironically the province’s Bill 66 would in fact give places like Woolwich and Wellesley more control over matters such as development … as long as they remain as distinct governments.
An amalgamated region, however, would see precious little rural representation at the table. As it now stands, Woolwich and Wellesley each have just one place on regional council, which doesn’t amount to much. But the townships remain autonomous for the most part, able to control its future at the local council level – in the absence of that structure, the priorities of the cities could quickly overwhelm each of the four rural townships in Waterloo Region.
Studies of Ontario municipalities amalgamated when that was in vogue with the Harris government show cost-savings to be non-existent. There may be benefits, but they’re not financial … and remain well hidden. And years afterwards, few people are raving about the decision.
While there can be a bit of initial cost savings by casting off duplicate senior staff members, it doesn’t take long before most of the money to be eaten up by the middle managers who are added to help administer a larger population and the services offered to them.
That idea makes no sense for any of the municipalities, least of all the townships. But politicians are capable of acting contrary to the public interest, and in that vein there’s the Ford factor to consider.