Premier Ford and Minister Steve Clark are looking at and consulting with a total of eight regional governments across the province, including Niagara. There is no question changes are coming. What those changes will look like remains a mystery.
Niagara has been discussing and debating its regional governance structure ever since it was created in 1970 by Premier Bill Davis and Minister Darcy McKeough.
That original effort to improve municipal governments in Niagara resulted in reducing the 29 existing local councils to 12 and creating one Regional Council.
There was much discussion then, as there is now, about how many municipal councils (and politicians) should exist. St. Catharines had just amalgamated Grantham Township, the town of Port Dalhousie and the town of Merritton. Thorold has escaped the amalgamation (so far), partly because it was in Welland County not Lincoln County, and because then Mayor Dr. McMillen had the foresight to see the amalgamation coming. He lead the charge of merging the Town of Thorold and Thorold Township into becoming the City of Thorold and therefore was immune to being amalgamated.
Discussion of better local municipal governance in Niagara has a long history of consultation, reports and recommendations. There’s also a long history of inaction.
The most recent report and recommendation came from the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce back in January of 2013. The recommendations were twofold: one, a directly elected Regional Chair and two; double-direct election of councillors. It was also recommended that these changes be implemented for the 2014 Municipal election. None of the councils acted on these recommendations.
The then newly elected St. Catharines Mayor, Walter Sendzik, and his council did pursue the double-duty option. Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s Premier at the time unilaterally imposed the Regional Chair-at-Large recommendation for Niagara, York and Peel, Regions.
However, in the end, nothing changed.
The frustration of inaction will likely end this year as Premier Ford and Minister Clark appear to be “committed to improving the way regional government works”. The on-line consultation invitation from the Minister says, “The outcomes of the review are not predetermined. It is about making sure regional and municipal governments are accountable to the people and working hard to deliver services to their communities.”
The current provincial government has stated that the end goal in any governance restructuring is to have regions end up working well and supporting the future economic prosperity of residents and businesses as well as working harder, smarter and more efficiently.
The common assumption is that Niagara has too many politicians, with 128 elected representatives and Premier Ford among others has said that seems like way too many for Niagara. He thought that about Toronto City Council and acted quickly and decisively.
Niagara has been the focus of several reports and recommendations;
197 5- 1977 review of the New Regional Municipality of Niagara Region
1989 – Kitchen report, on Council composition, police commission, boards and agencies
1995 – Government of Ontario Savings and Restructuring Act, Premiere Mike Harris
2000 – Berkley Consulting Group Report commissioned by Regional Council
2013 – Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce recommendation to Niagara Region Council
2013 – St. Catharines City council holds public consultations on a double-direct model for St. Catharines and reports to Council
2015 – City of St. Catharines recommends and requests the Niagara Region adopt double-direct by ward for St.Catharines
2016 – Niagara Region says yes, City Council votes no and the triple majority process fails
The options that have been suggested in the past, and likely are under consideration now are:
- Chair-at-Large, double-direct City/Regional Council , maintain current two tier structure.
- Chair-at-Large, double-direct City/Regional Council, reduce to five local councils, two tier structure.
- Three-city or four-city single tier with shared service boards, Berkley Consulting Report.
- Single tier City of Niagara.
These and many other options have been suggested over the years. In the coming weeks The Niagara Independent will examine various options and the rationale for each.
Bruce Timms is a St. Catharines resident and former Niagara Regional Councillor serving from 1991 to 2018.