Last week, the Government of Ontario announced that it will be reviewing the government structure of eight regions in the province, including their lower-tier municipalities, and Niagara is one of them.
Two highly-regarded special advisers, Michael Fenn and Ken Seiling, have been appointed and their recommendations are scheduled to be submitted to the minister of municipal affairs and housing by early summer. It is their mandate to outline opportunities to improve regional governance and service delivery.
The Regional Municipality of Niagara was established in 1970, and much has changed in the past 50 years. Our population has grown by approximately 30 per cent, our industrial composition has been changed almost beyond recognition by market and technological forces, the pressures on municipal infrastructure are growing, and service delivery expectations are increasingly demanding. As with all organizations, a regular review is critical to ensure that we have a structure that will serve us today and for the years to come.
There are many possibilities. Amalgamation into the “City of Niagara” is probably the most-talked-about, but there are others besides. Some of our smaller communities could be merged. We could divide Niagara into four along the lines of federal and provincial ridings. We could make city councillors dual-direct, as St. Catharines recently explored. We could tackle this from the bottom up and work to merge our various government departments, such as our fire or economic development services, rather than working from the top down by changing our political structure. This is not an exhaustive list, and there are still more options.
But what might help us the most is to shift the conversation from governance structure to one over what is objectively best for our community. The goal for any municipality — to offer the best service delivery, at the best price, for greatest good of their residents — is a worthy start to any conversation.
Before we can begin to guess at what our ideal model would look like, we need to know what really works — and what could we do better — to give us the competitive advantage needed in today’s economy. Change for change’s sake is never a good plan. Do we want a more responsive government that acts faster? Do we want better services, and at what price? Do we want to streamline or merge some of our services? Do we want to market ourselves with a united front to the world, and can we do it while protecting the unique character of each municipality?
The detailed answers to these questions will inform the type of government that we want.
We can have a goal in mind, but we cannot assume the best outcome simply because we began the process. Reforming governance structure is only worthy when it leads to better government. We must have a reasonable plan, and our research and our evidence must confirm that what we are doing will lead to our desired goal. We need to know not just what we are doing, but why we’re doing it. For our region to succeed in the years to come, we need to deliver the best government we can, as efficiently as we can.
We should take advantage of our greater experience and access the wealth of evidence available from previous amalgamations and governance reforms. The restructuring of the 1990s will offer many valuable lessons, if we can learn them.
We must seek what is objectively best for our community. We should be unafraid to ask honest questions and have the courage to go where the conclusions draw us.
In the meantime, if you are interested in contributing to the discussion about Niagara’s governance review, take a moment to complete our survey. We look forward to sharing the results on our site at https://gncc.ca.
A more in-depth review of the research and lessons from other amalgamations is being released shortly. Stay tuned.
Mishka Balsom is CEO and president of Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce