St. Catharines wants to move to a double-direct governance model. Here, we explain what it is, and why it matters.
Right now, there are four tiers of government whose policies affect Niagara: the twelve local municipalities (cities, towns, and townships) into one of whose jurisdictions every resident and business will fall, the Regional Municipality of Niagara, the Government of Ontario, and the Government of Canada. Between these four levels of government, we have a total of one hundred and thirty-two elected politicians here in Niagara.
St. Catharines currently has nineteen elected municipal and regional politicians. If dual-direct succeeds, that number would be cut to thirteen, filling the same number of roles.
The City of St. Catharines has voted to adopt a double-direct model. Under the current system, some members of Regional Council are there by virtue of having been elected to a mayoral office in Niagara, and others are elected specifically to Regional Council. The Mayor of St. Catharines sits on Regional Council, and is joined by six councillors from St. Catharines, none of whom also sit on city council. The proposed model abolishes these six separate seats and replaces them with six St. Catharines city councillors, who would do double duty in both city and regional councils – hence, double duty. It’s also known as double direct, since a councillor would be directly elected to two positions in one election.
In July 2015, St. Catharines got the go-ahead from Regional Council to a dual-duty request in to the provincial government after a city governance committee recommended the change in 2013. This move was supported by the GNCC, after a survey of Niagara businesses in which 80 per cent expressed a desire for a reduction in the size and complexity of local government.
In June 2016, the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing approved the request. The next steps are that Regional Council must give notice and hold a public meeting in order to pass a bylaw, and if that council approves, the request must also be considered by the other eleven municipalities, obtaining a triple majority – a majority of the upper-tier council, and a majority of the lower-tier municipal councils, which must represent a majority of the region’s residents.
There are some possible downsides to this that have been put forward.
Firstly, parochialism. If some regional council members were voted from a ward, rather than at large, would they not act to benefit their own wards, rather than the region as a whole? Say, for example, if the region would benefit from moving a hospital or a police headquarters, but a councillor might vote against the move because the original location – which didn’t benefit the whole region – was in their riding.
The dual-direct system does not actually change much in this way. Councillors might be tempted to benefit their ward at the expense of the region, but under the existing model, councillors are exposed to the same temptation – just for their municipality, rather than for a ward. And, of course, this also applies to Niagara’s twelve mayors, who all represent their municipalities at Regional council and are also expected to work for the betterment of the region as a whole.
This is the way Canadian politics works. Unlike the United States, we do not elect senior politicians at large – Prime Minister Trudeau, Premier Wynne, and their cabinets are all also members of Parliament for a federal or provincial riding, and are expected to balance the needs of that riding against those of the country or the province. So far, that system has worked well.
Secondly, would this give more power to St. Catharines at the Region? The short answer is “no.” Really, it is purely a St. Catharines matter – it is only due to provincial law that the region, the other municipalities, and the Government of Ontario must give their approval. This is ultimately a question of how St. Catharines chooses to govern itself.
Each community should decide its own best governance model, as St. Catharines has. Dual-direct might not be the best model for every community to adopt – indeed, there is probably no one single governance model that would be the best everywhere. Wainfleet currently has no dedicated regional councillors, for instance, so the dual-direct model would be completely meaningless there.
Thirdly, the combined salary for a full-time, dual-duty councillor (effectively combining two part-time roles) would be less than $50,000, which might be an issue. One advantage of a part-time council position is that it can be done beside another job, and many current councillors do this, balancing their public service with business ownership, for instance. A full-time councillor cannot do the same, and whether a sub-$50,000 salary is enough to attract the best people to the role is a question St. Catharines will have to answer. Throughout the region, we currently have many talented representatives whose single occupation is their political seat, even on a part-time salary.
There are benefits for business in the dual-direct model. For example, there are more opportunities to coordinate between the two levels of government when representatives are shared, such as in aligning the budget process or in economic development. Linking processes and aligning services could reduce red tape, particularly when it comes to industries such as development where both levels of government are involved.
Niagara Regional Council will hold a public open house on September 15th at 6:30pm in the Regional Council chambers. To make your voice heard on this issue, we encourage you to attend. As always, the GNCC is dedicated to representing the business community and advocating for its needs in this process.