PAUL FORSYTH/Niagara This Week
Business owners in Niagara have made it clear that the time has come to change how local municipalities are governed, regional councillors and mayors from across Niagara heard.
Those same politicians have already held two meetings to discuss potential changes to governance of local governments in Niagara, and another is planned for next month. But in case they thought they were pondering those changes in isolation, they were told in no uncertain terms by a representative of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce that they aren’t.
Kithio Mwanzia, director of policy and government relations for the chamber, said the current system of 12 municipal city and town councils, along with regional councillors who don’t sit on local councils and 12 mayors who sit on both their own council and on regional council, has gone virtually unchanged since the province created the regional government 42 years ago.
He said business in Niagara is calling for change, and change in time for the next municipal election in two years.
While governance in Niagara has been studied “ad nauseum” over decades with little change resulting, Mwanzia said the time for foot dragging is over. With Niagara facing very real economic challenges, a more business-friendly system of local government is needed, he said.
Any substantial changes to local government can require provincial approval and what’s known as a triple majority, involving the majority of Niagara municipalities representing the majority of registered voters from the last municipal election and the major of regional council members approving those changes.
Mwanzia’s comments came the same night that motions were brought forward that would see two major changes to regional government if they come to fruition.
St. Catharines Coun. Bruce Timms wants the idea of dual duty councillors explored. That would entail having councillors who sit on both town/city councils, and regional council. Timms said that’s necessary to bridge a divide between the two levels of government, and to get rid of confusion over the delivery of services.
Grimsby Coun. Debbie Zimmerman, meanwhile — herself a former regional chairwoman — brought forward a motion to explore the idea of having the regional chair directly elected by residents.
At present, that position is appointed by regional council following municipal elections. While Niagara’s regional government selects the chair from among those elected to regional council, under provincial law they could potentially appoint anyone who’s legally able to vote — whether or not they’ve been elected to council.
Mwanzia called Timms’ and Zimmerman’s motions “good first steps” toward creating a more responsive system of local government. He noted a chamber survey of Niagara businesses found more than 75 per cent of them say the size and complexity of municipal government in Niagara needs to be reviewed.
“The overwhelming opinion is that governance needs to be reworked in Niagara,” he said.
“There have been years of comprehensive studies. The time has come to act: Niagara cannot accept the status quo.”
Mwanzia said those reforms should be in place by the next municipal election in 2014.
Niagara Falls Coun. Selina Volpatti said she doesn’t see any grassroots movement in Niagara calling for major changes in governance. In fact, Volpatti tried to pass a motion several weeks ago that would forbid council from discussing the topic.
Likewise, Welland Coun. George Marshall said at a recent meeting of regional politicians on governance, there was a willingness to explore how services are delivered but little appetite for changing the makeup of councils.
Mwanzia said at a recent Niagara economic summit, hundreds of civic and government leaders spoke to an “overwhelming need” for change.
When asked by councillors if the chamber favours dual duty councillors or a directly elected regional chair, Mwanzia said he won’t be pinned down with yes or no answers. Instead, he called for business to be at the table when those governance issues are debated.
“Ultimately, the business community feels the brunt of the challenges associated with the existing governance model,” he said. “By including their expertise in the governance discussion, a more responsive and efficient system can be designed.”
The motions by Timms and Zimmerman were referred to a meeting to discuss governance issues on Jan. 24.