At the February 20, 2020, Regional Council meeting, I presented a motion for the direct election of the Regional Chair. You can read my pre-meeting thoughts about this motion here.
Following up on the motion to see the Regional Chair be directly elected come the 2022 election, here’s the motion, followed by what I said following the presentation of the motion:
WHEREAS the Province has completed its governance review and decided to leave governance reform in the purview of each municipality;
WHEREAS section 218.2 of the Municipal Act, 2001, provides a municipality the power to change the method of selecting its head of Council under section 218 of the Act for any regular election after 2018;
WHEREAS the upper tier municipalities of Durham Region, Halton Region, and Region of Waterloo directly elect their Regional Chair;
WHEREAS upper tier and single-tier municipalities in Ontario with larger populations and/or larger geographic areas than Niagara have directly elected Heads of Council;
WHEREAS Niagara is a progressive municipality with diverse interests; and
WHEREAS all of the voting citizens of Niagara deserve to have a direct say in who shall represent them as Regional Chair.
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED:
1. That The Regional Municipality of Niagara EXERCISE its power and follow the necessary process under section 218 of the Municipal Act, 2001, to change the method of selecting the Head of Council so that beginning with the 2022 municipal election and for all future municipal elections the Regional Chair is elected by general vote by the voting citizens of all 12 local area municipalities in the Niagara region in accordance with the Municipal Elections Act, 1996.
SPEAKING TO THE MOTION:
To date, the issue of the Chair being elected by the citizens of Niagara has been decided for us. The previous provincial government said Niagarans would elect their Chair and the current provincial government said we would not. It’s long past time to hear directly from the citizens of Niagara as to what they want, and kicking this can farther down the road only runs the risk of us running out of time to know what voters want in time to properly prepare for the 2022 election.
You’ve heard the Clerk lay out the process and how long it can take, and you’ve heard that an information report wouldn’t accomplish more than what we know now.
I’ve heard the arguments about Niagara being too large – in population and geographically. It’s a weak argument. Durham Region has both a larger population and a larger geographic area, and they’ve been electing their Chair for years. Halton Region and the Region of Waterloo both have larger populations and also no issues with electing their Chairs. Toronto and Hamilton have larger populations, and Ottawa is larger in both population and geographically, and they’ve all been electing their Heads of Council without many of the concerns that are raised in opposition to electing the Chair for Niagara.
I’ve also heard the arguments about how much money it would take to run for this position and how that might negatively impact the process. Again, I point to the Regions of Durham, Halton, and Waterloo, and the Cities of Hamilton, Ottawa, and Toronto where it takes as much or more money to run in areas with larger populations and/or larger geographic areas, and they’ve been electing their Heads of Council for years without any of the issues Niagara saw last term.
There is, unfortunately, no system that can prevent every potential bad thing from happening. We can’t make every decision based on the prospect of people with limited integrity getting involved or running for this seat. Would a system with a Chair elected by the citizens of Niagara be more open to corruption? We have no way of knowing that. What we do know is that this system was corrupted. If the system is going to be manipulated, it’s going to be manipulated – no matter what system we’re talking about.
We have to trust that the people who are putting their names forward are trustworthy and mean well. And if they’re not, we have to trust that voters will be able to see that and not elect them. That’s why there was such a significant turnover on this Council, in fact. People trusted that we have integrity and are looking out for the best interests of Niagara.
A Chair elected by Niagara voters will have a mandate from the public. Rather than appealing only to the people of one municipality to win their seat and then to a small group in this room to become Chair, they will have to appeal to a majority of voters across all of Niagara. They will have to know the issues in each of the municipalities, and they will have to work with councillors from each of those municipalities to make progress on those issues, especially if they want to seek re-election. They will have to put forward a vision for Niagara and plans to achieve that vision whilst working with the team that ends up in these chambers.
Maybe this opens up a larger and separate conversation about governance in Niagara, but I think it is important to move on this particular piece now.
More democracy is always better than less. And it is incumbent upon us to find out what the local area municipalities think we should do and – more imperatively – find out what the citizens of Niagara think we should do. If the motion fails at either of those points, at least the citizens of Niagara were finally asked the question.
JUST A FEW THOUGHTS FOLLOWING THURSDAY’S MEETING:
It’s interesting to me how many of my colleagues are opposed to the democratic direct election of the Regional Chair. The way the motion was written was simply that the Region would plan to pass a by-law that the Chair would be directly elected and that would begin the process of seeking triple majority support, including having at least one mandatory public meeting.
For those who are opposed to more democracy (and some of them are as was made clear at the meeting and in comments since the meeting), the more efficient thing for them to do would have been to vote down the referral, then – if the referral lost – vote down the motion.
Instead, we referred the matter back to staff for a report with no clear direction. There may be a governance committee that will come out of this, which might lead to the Region going to the public with a laundry list of things they’d like to change on the political front. That will undoubtedly be convoluted and overwhelming and is more likely to fail.
I’m not suggesting that governance in Niagara doesn’t need to be updated. Where you’ll save money and find efficiencies, though, is in the streamlining of service delivery, which our CAOs are already working on and planning to come to us in April about.
There were a few comments warning against the potential involvement of party politics in a campaign as large as that for the seat of Regional Chair. I humbly point out that party politics is – disappointingly – already a problem in our current system.
There were comments about the areas with directly elected Heads of Council not being perfect (I never said they were) and that there has to be a reason why some areas do it and others don’t. We have no way of knowing what that reason is, other than maybe they’ve just never asked. What we do know is that those Regions that have gone to a directly elected Regional Chair haven’t gone back to not directly electing their Regional Chair.
One of my colleagues said that because only 30% of people vote, “no one cares” about this. The fact is it is those 30% to whom we are communicating on this. We will never see 100% voter turnout, and I’ve never spoken to a Niagara voter who said they DIDN’T want to elect the Chair.
If you’re a super nerd like me, and you’d like to watch the discussion about the direct election fo the Regional Chair, you can do so here, beginning at 1:09:00.