There’s nothing wrong with right-sizing local government.
Provided it’s done right. In good faith and with good sense.
A sweeping review of grassroots governance, announced by Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives this week, aims for better services and greater efficiencies. Admirable goals — as long as the goalposts aren’t pushed back, and there’s a level playing field at the local level.
Our inherited hodgepodge of municipal boundaries and services is surely not sacrosanct. Regional government is long overdue for a rethink, given that its roots go back half a century.
But let’s not be naive about the potential to make municipal matters worse in search of ephemeral savings. And let’s not forget Doug Ford’s penchant for issuing edicts from on high about governments at ground level.
Has Ford learned any lessons from the political, legal and constitutional battle that erupted, paralyzing Queen’s Park and sapping his credibility? Have his supine cabinet ministers, who defended the indefensible, stiffened their spines?
The premier not only rewrote Toronto’s boundaries unilaterally, he is redrawing the Greenbelt willy-nilly. He has rewritten the rules for election fundraising, and reinvented cronyism by hiring his pal as OPP chief.
Now, a premier who doesn’t respect boundaries wants to redraw them.
Restructuring local democracy requires consultation, because governance is about process as much as substance. And amalgamation without approval is an abuse of process.
Many in the old City of Toronto remain bitter to this day about the amalgamation forced upon them with outlying boroughs to create a megacity in 1997. The promised savings didn’t materialize, even if service efficiencies did, but the political wounds still haven’t healed.
Notwithstanding Ford’s blind spots, he will rely on the eyes and ears of two long-time public servants with impressive credentials: Michael Fenn was a career bureaucrat who headed Metrolinx; Ken Seiling chaired Waterloo Region for decades.
But they have been relegated to the role of “special advisers,” not empowered as commissioners heading their own independent probe. They have promised to speak truth to power, but they will wield none of their own — not even a platform from which to issue a public report that speaks for itself.
While it’s true that elected governments always have the final say in any event, in this case only one level of government will prevail if the premier does as he pleases. In which case it will fall to Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark to stand up for democratic principles and good governance.
At age 22, Clark served as Canada’s youngest mayor in Brockville. At age 58, is he now ready to exercise his own good judgment and assert his ministerial authority?
When right-sizing municipalities, will the mayor-turned-minister do the right thing?
There will be no shortage of good arguments and ferocious disagreements over the best fit for local governments. There will not only be a push for amalgamation but a pitch for separation.
Should Mississauga separate from Peel Region, as Mayor Bonnie Crombie hopes? How will the sprawling regional municipalities of Halton, Durham and York emerge? Will Brampton be given short shrift merely because of Ford’s petty rivalry with Mayor Patrick Brown, whom he succeeded last year as PC leader?
This will not merely be an exercise in redrawing the municipal map, but an opportunity for Ford to draft his own political roadmap. What are his motives, what of his grudges?
The legacy of Toronto’s amalgamation — which made sense on so many levels — is that melding disparate political cultures is more art than science. It’s easy to imagine even greater divergences in other regions of the province.
How exactly will the promised consultations take place? Will they be limited to perfunctory online input, like the government’s outreach on sex education? Will the province merely mediate between rival political camps, or seek input from affected voters, perhaps relying on referenda to resolve disagreements?
Municipalities are creatures of the province, owing their existence and boundaries entirely to Queen’s Park. But they should not be manipulated like pieces on a chess board, nor their people treated like pawns.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn