The Ontario government announced it will conduct a review of regional governments in a search for ways to cut red tape and inefficiencies.
The province has tapped two experts to conduct the review of Halton, York, Durham, Waterloo, Niagara, Peel, Muskoka District, Oxford County, the County of Simcoe and their lower-tier municipalities.
Given the connections between the current government and the Mike Harris government, many would automatically assume this is a precursor to more amalgamations of communities across Ontario but Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark told Global News that was not necessarily the case.
“Amalgamation is not what this study is about,” he explained. “It’s about providing the best use of taxpayer dollars from our government. It’s about improving governance, better service delivery and about improving government at that level. That’s what the review is about.”
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Clark said the current model of government has been around for half a century and that times have changed. He has tasked the advisors to review the current model of regional governing.
“It’s almost 50 years and populations have changed,” he said. “They’ve grown. Infrastructure pressures are there. So it’s time for us to do a review.”
While it does not appear as if amalgamation is on the books, we could see more changes in the future with regards to how regional government is structured.
“Yes, there are going to be some people that are going to bring up the number of councillors during this review and they are free to do so,” Clark said. “They are free to speak to the advisors on what they feel the right composition of councillors should be and how you can streamline decision-making and governance at that level.
“People are free to give us recommendations on the size, composition and service delivery model that they think works best in their own region.”
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The advisory body’s aim is to look into how well the regional and municipal governments are functioning together and whether there is proper representation.
Clark has tasked former Waterloo chair Ken Seiling and former deputy minister Michael Fenn to help with a review to be prepared by early this summer.
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They are tasked with speaking to council members, municipal and business stakeholders and members of the public from the nine upper-tier municipalities and 73 lower-tier member municipalities before preparing the report.
Clark does not believe that early summer is an ambitious timeline to complete such a wide-ranging study.
“I have all the confidence that my advisors can engage those 82 communities and get some good recommendations in the early summer of 2019,” he said.
Premier Doug Ford introduced legislation in July that cut Toronto’s council from 47 to 25 and cancelled elections for regional chair positions in Peel, York, Muskoka and Niagara regions, turning them back into appointed roles. At the time, critics questioned why only those municipalities were being targeted.
The NDP’s municipal affairs critic said the last amalgamations came with “a massive wave of service costs and new cuts for people to bear.”
“The Ontario NDP is deeply concerned that the Ford Conservatives are planning to use the regional review as a pretext to impose amalgamation on municipalities,” Jeff Burch said in a statement. “The premier’s job is to respect the will of democratically elected local governments and work with them, not attempt to override their wishes and control their regions.”
— With files from Canadian Press