Ontario’s Ford Government Should Work With Niagara’s Community Leaders on Finding Best Paths for Reforming Local Government

Governance Reform does not work well with “my way or the highway” leadership

A Column from Dave Augustyn, former Mayor of Pelham in Niagara, Ontario who also served on Niagara Regional Council

Posted February 18th, 2018 on Niagara At Large

Dave Augustyn

In most regions across Ontario, the issue of governance reform and better service delivery has been discussed extensively over the last 50 years. Since the Province imposed Regional Governments in the late-1960s, various local Councils have debated numerous reports on governance and reform and various Provincial Governments have studied “who does what.”

The Harris Government imposed significant changes in the late 1990s as they forced several amalgamations and “downloaded” billions of dollars worth of Provincially mandated responsibility onto Cities and Towns. While the McGuinty / Wynne Governments “uploaded” many services back to the Province’s responsibility and coffers, they largely stayed away from other reforms.

More recently, however, the Ford Government reminded us all that “municipalities are creatures of the Province” when they cut the size of Toronto City Council from 47 to 25 and cancelled four Regional Chair elections last July.

And, as promised last August, Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark announced a review of regional governments in January and appointed Michael Fenn (former Municipal Affairs deputy minister) and Ken Seiling (long-serving Waterloo Regional Chair) as Special Advisors.

Home-Grown Solutions?

Niagara’s 12 Mayors released a statement (earlier this February)  stating their “united support for improving governance, transparency and accountability in local government.”

How will Niagara’s municipal map look four years from now. If Premier Doug Ford has its way, it could look very different and the number of local municipalities in Niagara and the number of municipal councillors representing Niagara’s citizens could be much fewer.

They asked for an “…opportunity to present made-in-Niagara solutions through this regional governance review.”

Four local Mayors cited opportunities and challenges for reform in the local newspaper: reducing the number of Mayors / Councillors (currently at 126 in 13 municipalities); the need for shared services; communities potentially losing their uniqueness; making local governments more responsive and transparent; affordability; increasing efficiencies and effectiveness; and removing duplication of services.

At the same time the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce launched an online survey to measure the pulse of the business community. They ask participants to “prioritize these goals in reforming government in Niagara: single Niagara brand and image; lower municipal taxes; reduced red tape; speed of decision-making by government; more and/or better municipal services (e.g. snow removal, economic development, waste management); increased access to elected representatives; and increased government transparency.”

Other Ontario regional and local government and business leaders are also talking about amalgamation, de-regionalization, going it alone (like Brampton and Mississauga), and a myriad of possible solutions.

Unfortunately, getting into this well-worn quagmire of regional governance debate reminds me of a familiar Yogi Berra quote: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

So, What’s the Problem?

Yet, it also reminds me of what Dr. David Seigel, Brock University Political Science professor, said in February 2012 during a special Niagara Regional meeting about governance. Dr. Seigel cautioned that before debating the merits of various solutions – like dual-duty Councillors, an appointed vs. elected chair, or amalgamation – Council had best determine the “problem that you are trying to solve.”

So often people rush to solutions, only to find that either their fast action has unintended consequences or it that didn’t actually help solve their overall challenge. Additionally, groups often get stuck in circular discussions – going around and around and around  – because participants cannot easily identify and map out why they might want to do something or what’s stopping them from taking a specific course of action.

Importance of Problem Definition:

These situations require leadership. Not the “my way or the highway” leadership, however. This leader needs to guide people through a process or method of finding and defining problems, solving them, and implementing the new solutions.

And, problem definition remains one of the most important keys to understanding and solving community and business challenges.

A popular statement about this insight has often been attributed to Albert Einstein: “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.”

Let’s hope the Province’s Special Advisors will work with business and community leaders to invest significant effort in problem definition and use a problem-solving process so that they can develop innovative solutions for local government.

If not, they risk fulfilling another quote oft-attributed to Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Dave Augustyn holds a Professional Innovation Advisor designation with Basadur Applied Creativity (www.basadur.com) and served as the Mayor of the Town of Pelham and a Niagara Regional Councillor from 2006 to 2018.

Check out Dave Augustyn’s NOW columns at www.daveaugustynnow.blogspot.com.

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For more news and commentary from Niagara At Large – an independent, alternative voice for our greater bi-national Niagara region – become a regular visitor and subscriber to NAL at www.niagaraatlarge.com .

 “A politician thinks of the next election. A leader thinks of the next generation.” – Bernie Sanders

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