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Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce

Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce president Mishka Balsom addresses the Niagara Region corporate services committee on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, in St. Catharines, Ont. Maryanne Firth/St. Catharines Standard/Postmedia Network

Thumbs down to an elected regional chair

Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce president Mishka Balsom addresses the Niagara Region corporate services committee on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, in St. Catharines, Ont. Photo by Maryanne Firth, St. Catharines Standard

The Niagara Regional chair will continue to be appointed by regional councillors, and not elected by voters.

During Wednesday’s corporate services committee meeting, a motion to take the next step in reviewing the process through which the regional chair is selected was defeated by a 13-6 vote.

The decision, pending final approval by regional council at its Oct. 1 meeting, means the status quo will be maintained and the chair will continue to be chosen by the 30 elected officials.

The vote followed a presentation by Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce president Mishka Balsom, who asked on behalf of the organization that regional council move toward an elected-at-large model for its chair.

Surveys completed in 2012 and 2013 indicate 80 per cent of businesses within the chamber’s membership are asking for reform, she said.

“Businesses don’t want to be standing here in a few years from now, as we have done in past years, asking for governance reform. We are looking for action, and this is a very small step in the right direction. Allow voters to make a choice.”

Niagara Falls regional councillors Bob Gale and Selina Volpatti felt the process to select the chair is a non-issue in their community.

“They’re not even thinking of this,” Gale said of Niagara Falls residents.

“I would suggest that your chamber should keep their eye on the prize. The prize is jobs and economy.”

People think regional council is “a joke,” Gale said, because of the time it has spent on non-priority topics.

“Not to say they weren’t necessary, but we spent hours and days on things when jobs and economy are the big things.”

Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn, who brought the motion forward, said allowing politicians — and not voters — to select the chair is “antiquated and undemocratic,” adding a change to the process would increase openness and transparency and help the Region “overcome the perception of an old boys’ club.”

“It’s indicative, I think, of some of the things keeping Niagara back.”

The motion, Augustyn said, was meant to begin the conversation about what municipalities, businesses and residents want to see happen.

If the process was followed and change was rejected at that point, that would at least reinforce that the will of the public is being followed, he said.

In response, Volpatti said, “Our process is antiquated, as is our parliamentary system.

“To suggest we are not open, accountable or transparent or democratic because our process is parliamentary flies in the face of parliamentary democracy everywhere.

“I really resent the time we spend on this navel gazing,” she said, adding more pressing issues such as affordable housing, jobs and a lack of mental health beds should be council’s priority.

“I think it’s ridiculous. Let’s get back to the business we’re elected to be here for.”

During a recent meeting with the chamber and local business leaders, Regional Chair Alan Caslin said there were “a lot of questions, some of them difficult, about what we are doing as a council in our community.”

His responses, he said, were “more aligned with what we’re trying to do with our strategic plan,” including the Region’s focus on economic prosperity, GO Transit plans and intermunicipal transportation.

Addressing Balsom, he asked: “Would it be OK with you if we stopped talking about ourselves and got on with our strategic plan and our focus on prosperity and creating jobs in Niagara?”

She responded that she thinks “it’s in interest of all business that we do,” but that the chamber also recognizes issues exist that could make the strategic plan more effective.

Following the meeting, Augustyn asked that Niagara residents hoping to see the process reviewed contact their city’s regional representatives in hopes of having the issue addressed at an upcoming meeting.

“It’s kind of a last attempt or last-ditch effort,” he said.

“I’m asking people to reach out, if this is a burning issue for them. Let them know your thoughts so they can be part of the decision on Oct. 1.”

How they voted:

In favour: Augustyn, Annunziata, Easton, Edgar, Hodgson and Timms.
Opposed: Barrick, Burroughs, Campion, Caslin, D’Angela, Diodati, Gale, Heit, Maloney, Maves, Petrowski, Quirk and Volpatti.

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