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Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes an announcement at Queen's Park in Toronto, on July 27, 2018. Ford says he will significantly reduce the number of Toronto city councillors just months before the fall municipal election.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Two years ago, the Liberals said it was in the public interest to mandate elections for the regional chair in York, Peel, Muskoka and Niagara. On Friday, just hours before the nomination deadline, Premier Doug Ford cited the same argument in announcing that the elections are being scrapped, and that regional councils will go back to appointing their own leaders.

“The last thing the families, businesses and municipal leaders in these regions need is another layer of politicians − another layer of dysfunction,” he said Friday morning. “So we’re going to go back to the way it was before 2016.”

Though reactions to the Premier’s announcement were divided across the regions, the surprise was unanimous.

Muskoka Regional Chair John Klinck – who was appointed to the role in 2014, and was planning to run for the job again this fall – said the last-minute timing of the Premier’s decision is “questionable.”

“If nothing else,” he said, “this morning certainly underlines the fact that all municipalities in the province are creatures of the province. They give us our marching orders and away we go.”

A lot of people in Muskoka had been looking forward to electing a district chair for the first time, Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith said. He questioned the lack of consultation with the communities − while noting that the Liberals’ 2016 decision to hold regional chair elections was similarly sprung upon them without their input.

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Toronto Mayor John Tory speaks to the media at Toronto city hall on July 27, 2018. Tory says he's told Ontario Premier Doug Ford that the process around a plan to slash the number of city councillors in half is "absolutely not right."Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

“Twice in fairly short order, a significant change has happened to the electoral system in Muskoka, without a lot of input from Muskoka,” Mr. Smith said.

A regional chair essentially acts as chief executive officer of the regional council. But the structures of these councils across the province are inconsistent. In Durham, Halton and Waterloo, regional chairs have always been elected − and will continue to be.

On Friday, Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said the proposed legislation will also include a review of regional government, generally.

Ted McMeekin, who was municipal affairs minister for the Liberals back in 2016, recalled Friday that the rationale behind their decision to hold elections for these leadership roles was to "take the backroom musings and manipulation out of the equation.”

Peel, York and Niagara Regions had all been opposed to an elected chair.

“An elected regional chair would create a super mayor with their own political agenda and staff, and may not align with the agenda of the City of Mississauga at the Region of Peel,” Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, who sits on the regional council, said in an e-mail statement Friday. “An appointed chair saves taxpayers’ money.”

“No different than the Liberal or PC governments pick their leader, we want to pick ours,” York Region Chairman Wayne Emmerson said. “I’ve received quite a few e-mails and texts from council saying [this is] great news for the region of York."

He doesn’t like the term “appointed,” and argues that the leader is still voted in − just by representatives of the people.

“All the people sitting around that table were duly elected by the public,” he said. “They were elected by the public and they have to make decisions. And one of the decisions they want to make is who [will] chair their meetings.”

In Niagara Region, Chair Alan Caslin said the announcement came as welcome news − although they are “scrambling” to figure out what the impact will be.

“We’re back where we started I guess,” he said.

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