The Ontario government says it has decided against pursuing a “top-down approach” and will not radically redraw the province’s regional governments after a review process that took months.
Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark announced Friday that instead of acting on a menu of sweeping changes – including Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie’s plea that her city become independent of Peel Region – Queen’s Park will offer up $143-million for municipalities to find new ways to lower costs and improve services.
The decision is the latest conciliatory gesture from a government that has softened a series of controversial cuts to municipal funding in recent months and only the day before offered to modify its plan to increase high school class sizes in an effort to avert a teachers’ strike.
In an interview, Mr. Clark insisted his move was not a climb-down because, as he has consistently said since the review was launched in January, he had no preconceived notions – despite speculation among some municipal politicians that radical changes were coming.
“Our government listened. We had extensive consultations, we received advice,” he said after speaking to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario Thursday morning in London, Ont. “What Ontarians want is they want their politicians to work together, on shared services, on making sure there’s value for the taxpayer’s dollar. And that’s the direction we took."
Ms. Crombie said she was disappointed with the decision not to allow her city – Ontario’s third largest – to break away from Peel Region and become a standalone municipality similar to Hamilton, Windsor or Toronto. Her predecessor, the long-serving Hazel McCallion, had long called for similar reforms. Ms. Crombie argues Mississauga should not be forced to subsidize the growth of its smaller neighbours in Peel, the municipalities of Brampton and Caledon, and that duplication of services was an issue.
In an e-mailed statement, she vowed to keep pushing the other municipalities in the region to address her city’s complaints: “Mississauga residents and taxpayers must be treated fairly. ... Mississauga deserves to have a strong voice and have the ability to make decisions on behalf of our residents without the interference of other municipalities.”
In January, Mr. Clark announced the appointment of two advisers – former senior Ontario bureaucrat Michael Fenn and former Waterloo Region chairman Ken Seiling – to review Ontario’s eight regional municipalities (Halton, York, Durham, Waterloo, Niagara, Peel, Muskoka District and Oxford County), the County of Simcoe and their 82 lower-tier municipalities. Regional governments handle a variety of shared services, such as water and sewers, garbage collection and police.
Their report, which Mr. Clark said was confidential and would not be released, came after more than 8,500 submissions and nine consultation sessions with individuals and organizations on ways to improve local government. Mr. Clark said the government had decided that communities should decide what is best for them and that Queen’s Park should not pursue a “top-down approach.”
Top-down is one way critics described what Premier Doug Ford did when he slashed Toronto’s city council almost in half in the middle of the 2018 municipal election. The regional review was also announced at that time.
Ontario also cancelled the first elections that year for a regional chair in Peel – being contested by former Ontario PC Party leader Patrick Brown, who later won the mayoralty in Brampton – and in York, Niagara and Muskoka.
Mr. Brown, who stepped down as party leader amid allegations of sexual misconduct, which he has denied, welcomed the government’s decision Friday, adding that two accounting firms hired as consultants had also concluded that keeping Peel Region intact was better for all its taxpayers.
With a report from Laura Stone
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