PETER CONRADI/Bullet News
Regional politicians did the governance two-step again Thursday night and, to no one’s real surprise – and as they have done so many times in the past – tripped over their own feet.
It took councillors more than three hours to essentially accomplish nothing. Nothing on the issue of the day, that is. OK, those who would choke off debate and any kind of action on governance wouldn’t view it that way. It was mission accomplished for proponents of the status quo. For those seeking change, for those seeking efficiency, for those seeking something to move us forward, it was yet another evening of futility.
Yes, councillors did do one thing. They opted to try to disallow non-elected people from running for chair. Two years ago the topic came to an ugly head when former Welland mayor Damian Goulbourne, a loser at the polls, inserted himself into the race to become regional chairman. The outrage was loud and clear. Councillors heard that message from the public and will now attempt to acquire the necessary triple majority needed to bring about the change. It won’t be easy.
A triple majority is when legislation dictates a shift that needs endorsement of the majority of regional councillors and the majority of the 12 municipalities. In addition, the municipal approval has to represent the majority of Niagara’s population – all of which is a virtual guarantee of gridlock.
Regardless, those councillors who patted themselves on the back for this simple accomplishment were stretching a point badly by suggesting it represented some kind of giant step forward on governance. It did no such thing. It was a simple, common-sense matter they could have dealt with in five minutes. Instead they opted to squeeze it from an otherwise agonizing, head-pounding discussion that had everyone in the room struggling to keep up.
“We effectively did nothing tonight,” said St. Catharines Coun. Bruce Timms, who saw his proposal to reform and reduce the number of politicians go down in flames. “Apparently people think everything is working well at the Region.”
Timms wanted to introduce a system of double-duty councillors – politicians who sit at both municipal and regional tables. He argued this would close the communication and co-operation gap that currently exists between regional and local government. He admitted it was a small step, but said it has the advantage of being something all municipalities could accept. It wouldn’t have meant amalgamation, which is something his fellow St. Catharines councillors want, but are unlikely to ever see, not if they couldn’t get behind an idea as benign as this. Yet many viewed at as the last step to Armageddon.
“It doesn’t threaten anyone,” Timms said. “It doesn’t say to any community that you aren’t going to exist anymore, and it gets us out of the log jam we currently see.”
Timms’ plan would not have mandated how a municipality sends its councillors to the Region – that would be up to them. But it would have eliminated the Region-only councillors. It would also have reduced the number of elected people across Niagara, currently 125, by 18.
“Councillors here seem to be more concerned about the mechanics of how it will work rather than the need for an improved regional government,” he said. “We seem more concerned about the mechanics of getting elected than what the voter wants. For example, the voters in my mind want an elected chair.”
And they’re not getting that either. That proposal came from Grimby Reg. Coun. Debbie Zimmerman and, on this night of doing nothing, it was another concept shoved to the sidelines.
“The frustration is we’ve gone nowhere,” she said.
Sitting against one wall were representatives from the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, feverishly tapping out Tweets on smart-phones as their hopes of seeing some kind of governance progress were dashed. The Chamber has insisted the business community it represents is clambering for a governance overhaul, pointing to a region that is over-regulated, over-taxed and sloppily run by too many politicians and officials.
While no one truly expected radical change overnight, nothing as extreme as actually chopping municipalities, there were some foolish enough to believe at least a thoughtful debate was possible. Nope. The meeting again grew peevish at times, with many of the councillors clearly having pre-conceived notions of how they would vote. Few paid attention when others were speaking, instead chatting and cajoling among themselves.
So is governance dead? For the time being it seems to. Nothing will happen before the next election now. The provincial government would have needed governance requests in front of them before the end of the year to make it on the 2014 ballot. That seems highly unlikely at this point, given that two fairly tame submissions had such a violent ride.
You continue to win support…only way to convince these mayors and some of these councillors that there is a better way is through the public voice. I think St. Catharines has shown its concerns, but the rest of the region is not interested. There seems to be a popular notion (in St. Catharnes) that a super-city is the way to go. But you saw from the opinion here today it’s pretty clear that the broader opinion is that the status quo is working great. So, we’ll just keep plugging away.”
Plugging away, and maybe finding some new dance partners in 2014.