Ontario municipalities where the PCs get their power should fight Doug Ford
Municipal jurisdictions that hold much of the economic and political power in Ontario are disadvantaged in one glaring way in their mounting battle against Doug Ford: despite the reach of social media, they don’t have a very big megaphone.
While the mainstream media based in Toronto gives voice to the city’s concerns (which hasn’t proved very effective in challenging Ford so far) municipalities across the province have the opportunity to do what the capital city can’t. They are the power-bases for the PC party – 65 of the ruling party’s 76 seats (86 percent) are outside Toronto – and they have a unique set of issues that simply aren’t of much relevance to many in the 416.
Those issues – the future of The Greenbelt, land use planning, environmental policy in our northern regions, cuts to testing private drinking water, the accommodation of an expected 4 million new residents, mostly in the 905, over the next three decades and many others – will impact everything from future commute times to the air we breathe.
Ford knew he couldn’t upset the eight regions being reviewed to determine the future governing model used to make local decisions for almost ten million Ontarians. The men fingered by the Premier to conduct the review earned their political stripes in key jurisdictions: Michael Fenn as chief administrator in Hamilton and Burlington, and Ken Seiling, the Elmira-born chairman of Waterloo Region.
The Fenn-Seiling tandem are piquing the body politic by conducting public forums with citizens across the province. They are charged with listening, learning, and offering up recommendations on a possible re-do of the regional governance model.
Those citizens offered their thoughts and gripes at Region of Peel council chambers in Brampton on Wednesday. The majority of speakers thought it was high time this tired second-tier of local government was discarded, and most (but not all) of the Mississauga delegates said it is way past time the sixth largest city in Canada won its independence from Brampton and Caledon.
The discussion was honest and open and pivoted on four possible outcomes: status quo, independence, amalgamation of Mississauga and Brampton into a super-city, or a total revamp of the regional governance structure.
Fenn and Seiling are low-wattage political greybeards, with thick CVs and tons of credibility as wise counsels. They promise to take an even-handed approach to the task laid out before them. In other words, they are polar opposites of the great disruptor who asked for their help, Doug Ford.
To cynics, this might suggest the two elder statesmen are being used as pawns or window-dressing, and the Premier will do whatever he really wants to do – cut out this malignant form of over-government and downsize another level of political oversight. Ford’s approach is to let the people and the private sector govern, even (or especially) if that means those close to him all of a sudden, quietly, get personal and commercial advantages.
Check out his track record: since he took office last June, he has channeled fictional movie hero Edward Scissorhands. He immediately sliced Toronto city council almost in half (during the middle of the municipal vote!), and then took the shears to public voting on chairpersons of regions around the province, including Peel. And since taking hold as chief executive of the province, he has cut library funding, music programs, flood mitigation, tree planting, flood management, funding for midwives, education, healthcare, workers’ rights, guaranteed income, environmental programs, mental health funding, youth-at-risk programs, overdose prevention, social assistance, renewal energy initiatives, cycling infrastructure, transit, pharmacare, the Green Ontario Fund, support for think tanks, the sex-ed curriculum and has removed protection under the Endangered Species Act. Brampton has been specifically targeted, with Ford turning off the money tap for a proposed downtown university campus while ignoring the city’s ongoing healthcare crisis as hospital patients continue to suffer in deplorable conditions. There’s more – a whole lot more!
For many across the province, growing concerns about climate change and the ecosystem are driving their decision making. Here are some of the biggest worries about Ford on these files being voiced by politicians across Ontario.
Government targets the green movement
Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner, an MPP from Guelph, thinks the Ford government is being “reckless” with the future prospects of the province. His biggest bone of contention is the slap-down of future generations through anti-environmental maneuvers, the worst “we’ve seen in generations,” he said.
The major worries he and other eco-activist politicians and residents across the province are raising include…
Cancelling cap-and-trade: Legislation will repeal the province's cap-and-trade system. The bill was introduced in July, a month after Ford’s win, but the final vote was delayed when legal action by Greenpeace Canada was launched against it. The action alleges the province flouted the Environmental Bill of Rights by not holding public consultations. Ontario then launched those consultations, which have wrapped up. No results have been made public. A federal lawyer warned climate change was an urgent threat, and she said, Ottawa has addressed an issue while still respecting provincial jurisdiction.
Eliminating environmental commissioner: The outgoing Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe issued dire warnings days before the Ford government took power last June. She warned about the "frightening" state of climate policy in the province. Ford announced the elimination of the EC office and merging it with the auditor general. In September Saxe issued a report that called the government’s new climate policy "very inadequate, very frightening", adding that cap and trade was being eliminated just as it was beginning to reap significant benefits in carbon reduction while gaining support among many key industry sectors in the province.
Cutting Flood managment: Conservation Ontario, which oversees the province’s 36 conservation authorities, called the Ford cuts to flood mitigation a troubling move, given the direct impact of climate change, which will have particularly damaging effect in rural and northern communities. "Cutting natural hazards funding is particularly problematic right now in light of the fact that — like everywhere else — Ontario is experiencing stronger and more frequent flood events as a result of climate change impacts," CO wrote in a public statement last month after Ford cut the entire program in half.
The Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority called it near-sighted, as floods ravaged vulnerable parts of the province where the PC’s enjoy strong support.
Cuts to funding to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks: Queen’s Park is cutting hundreds of millions from the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks. The Ford government said more than $300 million in cuts from that ministry's budget comes from programs funded by the cap-and-trade system, as well as the cancellation of the Drive Clean program for passenger vehicles.
The Large Urban Mayor’s Caucus of Ontario (LUMCO) is currently chaired by Guelph Mayor, Cam Guthrie. His great concern about Ford is the continuous downloading of costs to municipalities. He and many other politicians across Ontario argue that Ford’s claims of finding efficiencies is just one giant shell game. “This amounts to millions of dollars per year in funding reductions to vital, front-line services including public health, policing, library services, child care, tourism, and flood management. This is on top of a cap on Ontario gas tax funding and ongoing uncertainty with major changes to ambulance services,” he said in a public statement last week.
“The first line in Finance Minister (Vic) Fedeli’s budget speech indicated the government would not raise taxes. The budget paper explicitly says that changes and costs need to be sustainable for both orders of government,” Guthrie said. “There is only one taxpayer. It is disingenuous to say that the changes are sustainable if municipalities are left to consider how to make up the shortfalls.”
“We call on the Government of Ontario to postpone the implementation of these funding cuts to at least 2020, to allow for proper discussion with municipalities and local residents. We call on the government of Ontario to be transparent about its intentions and engage with cities before downloading more services.”
Those words were echoed by Burlington’s Mayor, Marianne Meed Ward, who has quickly showed she’s not scared of Ford, especially when he hurts her residents.
"This is downloading of costs by stealth, without transparency or consultation. The result is cuts to vital programs: public health, conservation, flood mitigation, tree planting, library services, and more that are still to come. These cuts hurt the health and well-being of our community, along with our environment," she recently stated.
Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward
"The provincial government pledged to reduce the deficit by finding efficiencies — instead they are cutting front-line programs that you depend on. They are balancing their own books by sending costs back to the cities and the property tax base. This is your money — money you sent to the province through your income taxes — and these cuts mean that you're not getting it back in the municipality you live to allocate to the things that you rely on and that matter to you."
Even conservative politicians around the province are standing up to Ford. When he announced plans to ram through Bill 66, a business-friendly piece of legislation to curb government regulation and so-called over-reach, late last year, before a widespread backlash, Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman was one of many leaders who said the clear effort to hand over Ontario's Greenbelt to developers, in the name of opening up business opportunities, would not be tolerated. “The regulatory burden is too high,” he said publicly, acknowledging that due to current provincial rules some business-related land-use issues can take too long. “That being said, there’s no justification for some of the exemptions they’re including in this bill. This maybe started with a good idea: Consolidating some of the burden and making it easier to bring jobs. But it goes way, way, way too far.”
Lehman also recently blasted Ford for cutting funding to the local police, used for prisoner transportation. “I actually agree that Ontario's finances are not in good shape,” Lehman said. “When this government makes cuts I agree with, I will applaud them. But we need Ontario to provide more funding to police, not less, to allow us to address the pressing public safety concerns in our community. I fight for Barrie, and I will work and praise those in government who support Barrie and its needs, and criticize those who don't, regardless of their stripes.”
Ford has a pathological hate on for the dreaded duplication of services, but has never presented a clear case for most of the so-called solutions he’s forcing down our throats, many of which could cause even more expensive problems. On the surface, regional government looks like the poster boy. Killing it off was a personal peccadillo of former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion. She expressed her outrage when she took the reins of office in 1978 and fanned the flames of discord during her 36 years at the helm. She passed on this animus to her successor, Bonnie Crombie, who now carries the torch, along with her council. They claim the vast majority of the citizens in that city are supportive. Some of them (but not all) expressed their desire to be done with Caledon and Brampton in front of Fenn and Seiling inside regional council chambers on Wednesday.
If you think this vast shaking of the municipal soul is Peel-centric, you’d be right. The Fenn-Seiling mandate is broader, including the regions of Halton, York, Durham, Waterloo, Niagara, Muskoka District, Oxford County, and the County of Simcoe – plus other lower-tier municipalities. A total of 82 will be examined, and the province hasn't ruled out the possibility some will be amalgamated. Few are in open revolt, like what is happening in Peel.
A key point raised by many local politicians is that Ford should not determine the future of communities he has no connection to. Long-standing identities and local values, neighbourhood ties and closely intertwined relationships between institutions that identify under one civic banner, could all be upended by Ford. Many don’t want to have these identities and relationships uprooted because of the latest bottom-line experiment by the ruler of the day inside Queen’s Park.
But communities and their leaders have to stand up. It’s not clear why Brampton seems to be favouring the status quo, to keep Peel Region as is, but its citizens are seemingly disinterested. While 5,000 residents did take part in a recent tele-townhall on the issue, none from this city bothered to show up Wednesday, despite the fact the forum was held here. And an actual townhall last week drew an embarrassingly thin crowd, while almost half the city’s councillors were also absent.
That’s not going to get it done, if the city hopes to fight Ford’s plan for Brampton’s future, whatever that might be.
He is an alt-right ideologue who campaigned like a bull and now rules with a sneer, and projects a one-size-fits-all philosophy for fixing what ails the province. His party’s mantra is ‘Open for Business,’ and closing everything else down. He has cut programs and agencies to the bone, then to the marrow, and he’s gone deep still, to the very DNA of the province. He has turned chopping healthcare and education and environmental programs into an art form. He is now threatening to upend the Places to Grow legislation and open up the province to uncontrolled development – a gift he promised his friends in the development sector during the election campaign.
He has already made clear that land use disputes will be decided on by a body that favours developers, a return to the old Ontario Municipal Board model after that body was dissolved by the previous Liberal government to make way for a new mediation panel that is supposed to favour the desires of municipalities in land-use battles. Now, under Ford, with his introduction of Bill 108, the More Homes, More Choice Act, the panel would once again be set-up to favour his friends in the development industry. The bill had its second reading on Thursday.
Burlington’s Meed Ward is one of many local leaders across Southern Ontario, including many in PC strongholds such as Niagara Region, who has called out the bill’s obvious intention, to help developers, pointing out that it will likely hinder the creation of desperately needed affordable housing.
”Reverting back to the older rules of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), through the Province's Bill 108 announced yesterday, is a duplication of efforts – adding more time, more money and more red tape at a time when the Province’s Regional Government Review is underway looking for efficiencies. I don’t believe this will speed up development of affordable housing, in fact, it will slow it down and add costs,” she tweeted last week.
If you are skeptical about claims that developers can directly influence the entire political process, research the lengths Calgary-based developer Cal Wenzel went to in 2013 to get the municipal election result he wanted. You can watch the hidden-camera video that blew the lid off that story here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIaOzM2i2wc
Ford’s choice of the even-tempered Seiling and the brainy Fenn to study the future of regional governance offers hope that communities, not developers and accountants, will determine their future. One thing seems certain in terms of a regional re-do, Ford will not settle for the status quo.
He has not lost a minute of sleep cutting what he perceives as too much government.
He brings an almost opposite governing style to the office, compared to one of Ontario’s former premiers, perhaps its most beloved. Brampton’s Bill Davis was cautious and a compromiser, and wasn’t afraid of nuance. In one of his first acts as the PC premier (shock, horror, gasp), he stopped the Spadina Expressway. Today, that would be painted as an act of treason by many Conservatives – a stab in the back to friends in the development industry, and a stupid concession to those on the left.
But it was just one example of Davis’s belief in listening to the people and communities, regardless of political, personal or commercial advantage.
One look at Seiling’s CV (33 years as chair of Waterloo Region) makes his appointment by Ford a head scratcher. Waterloo region had the foresight to institute an official plan back in 1976. The land-use policies installed then, haven’t changed much since. Seiling worked diligently to counter the haphazard growth in the province over the past 30 years. That includes the height of poor land-use planning and runaway, sprawling growth enabled by the loose policies of the last PC governments before Ford, under Mike Harris and Ernie Eves. They embraced sprawl and didn’t care about the resulting gridlock. The give-over of lands so developers could build single-family homes, created massive problems in ‘burbs like Brampton, but the ripple effect is felt from Waterloo and Hamilton all the way west to Oshawa and north beyond Barrie.
Seiling said unless there were strong land-use policies, communities would have a run on speculative land buying outside developed areas, and increase the pressure to develop it. To his way of thinking, the stolid Mennonite farms in his region, saved the area from ruinous sprawl. He once said in other cities, the farmland would have been bought up and eaten up by speculators thinking they could jump the line to develop.
Isn’t this what Ford wants to do in Ontario in 2019?
“Premier Ford has handed over the development process to the development industry and their lobbyists,” Josh Matlow, a Toronto councillor, recently pointed out.
Seiling has promised to take a fair look at the system. The idea is to listen to people, compare notes with Fenn, and give his best professional opinion about the future of decision-making that will directly impact the lives of the vast majority of Ontario residents.
Under Harris, Ontario amalgamated local governments from Kawartha Lakes to Toronto in a similar bid to improve efficiency. There was little public input, and the effectiveness of the strategy has been questioned in the years since. It’s unclear if Ford will chance this unpopular option again, and lose his foothold in the regions where his PC supporters, who put him into power, live.
Seiling says he’s been long interested in regional governance, and thinks his experience and ability to listen to others can help improve local governance in Ontario.
What happened here in Peel Region wasn’t pretty – sprawl, and an embrace of the car. Smart growth targeted directly the two biggest cities in Peel, the third and fourth largest in Ontario. Ford wants to return to a development model that burned itself out at the turn of this century.
If Ford is bellicose and single-minded, Fenn and Seiling are thoughtful, measured, and good listeners. Seiling was raised and still lives in the tiny hamlet of Elmira. The father/grandfather might look like a throwback to a bygone era of gas lit towns and community bake offs, and in his spare time he was an organist who directed choirs and played in many churches across the region. The former mayor of Woolwich (six years), and regional chair (33 years), boasts that he has never been involved in party politics at any level. In a local newspaper that wrote a feature on his retirement a few years back, he was described like this: “In an age of bombastic politicians and divisive, overheated politics, he's an old-school advocate for civility and quiet diplomacy.”
In other words, he’s the alt-Ford.
Seiling has deftly stickhandled through many political minefields, and perhaps gets some of this talent from his brother Rod, who once starred in the NHL with the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs. He seems a solid pick when it comes to understanding the problems that plague Peel and much of the province. Waterloo Region’s makeup is almost a perfect match. It is dominated by two cities (Kitchener and Waterloo, whose residents include many still uncomfortable with their merger in 1973 under regional government) and spills out into rural communities featuring lovely farmland.
He and Fenn seem oddly aligned to the Ford government.
Their quiet, and even-handed approach as they sift through thousands of documents and listen intently to personal tales being delivered to them face-to-face, looks, on the surface, like democracy at work.
Or, as some suggest, this constitutes a complete waste of time.
It’s doubtful the Fenn-Seiling recommendations will find a fit with the slashers and burners at Queen’s Park. Their cuts might cause a giant hike in regional taxes – if the region is still around to pass them along to citizens.
The potential impact of changes to regional government as well as the effect of Ford’s entire suite of cuts to high-growth, rural and northern communities is the big story across the vast expanse of Ontario, where the economic and political forces that hold the PC government’s future in their hands exist – in places like Brampton and Burlington, Kenora, Sudbury and Kingston, and all the tiny communities between and beyond that make up the sum of Ontario’s very considerable parts.
These cuts should stir up a serious backlash in the places where residents will decide on Mr. Ford’s future.
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