Why Mess With (Near) Perfection?


The issue of regional reform for Waterloo has resurfaced this past month. The Regional Municipality of Waterloo is a two-tier regional government, taking in the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge as well as the rural townships of Woolwich, Wellesley, Wilmot and, to the south, North Dumfries. These cities and townships each have their own councils that look after their own interests, but their citizens also elect members to a regional council that administers the area’s police force, public transit, waste management, economic development and other issues.

A series of articles run by the local paper suggests that eight separate municipal councils operating in a piece of territory occupied by 450,000 citizens may be too many. Perhaps the rural townships should be amalgamated. Perhaps the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo should merge. Perhaps the eight governments should be reduced to two (separated by Highway 401), or perhaps it should all be mushed together into a single sprawling city. Call it Waterloo perhaps, or Kitchener-Waterloo, or Grand River, or Conestoga, or Cambridge (only Cambridge residents seem to go for that idea).

This is about the third time we’ve discussed regional amalgamation, at least in terms of what I can recall since moving here from Toronto in 1991. Regional reform may be akin to this area’s trip to the dentist.

The Regional Municipality of Waterloo was created by the province in 1974 as part of a municipal reform package altering what had previously been Waterloo County. At the time, the municipal structure of cities, counties and townships in Ontario was relatively unchanged since 1849. The province was broken up into a series of counties, which themselves were broken up into a series of unincorporated townships. Urban areas that became cities separated from the counties they were a part of, so that certain county councils had the odd habit of administering a patch of territory with holes in it.

The situation worked, for the first hundred years. When cities were big enough to take care of themselves, they took care of themselves, leaving the surrounding counties to administer their own affairs. Then, in 1954, after Toronto’s urban growth had shot forward at a remarkable rate, and the city found itself surrounded by twelve suburban municipalities, some of whom were struggling under growth pressures, while others, hosting a lot of highly taxable industry, were leaching off of Toronto’s population and services.

With downtown Toronto in need of infrastructural renewal, and certain suburbs on the verge of bankruptcy, and no regional plan to coordinate development, the Toronto area struggled to come up with a response. Toronto demanded that the twelve surrounding suburban municipalities be annexed into the city proper. The suburban municipalities, desiring their independence, demanded a loose service-sharing federation. The provincial solution was to create a tighter federation called Metropolitan Toronto. The cities and suburbs would all maintain their independence, but they would send representatives to a metropolitan council, which would have power over regional planning, policing, firefighting (eventually), public transportation and other services.

It was a bold move, turning its back on 105 years of municipal tradition. Rather than pulling the cities out of the county and leaving them to administer themselves, Metropolitan Toronto operated as an urban county. The province felt, with some justification, that while there were some issues that needed to be addressed on a region-wide basis while others were best settled by an independent Mimico, or Leaside or Swansea. This two-tier system worked by acknowledging that communities nested within each other. There was no reason for a person in Scarborough to care about a parking bylaw in Long Branch, but there was plenty of reason for people in Scarborough and Long Branch to care about where the next subways and expressways should or should not go.

The model was tried in Winnipeg in the late 1950s, and again in the counties surrounding Metropolitan Toronto in the late 1960s. In my opinion, this two-tier model of government worked best when the upper (regional) tier was comprised only of councillors who also sat on the lower-tier cities. That way the upper-tier was never a city in its own right, operating in competition with the cities beneath it. The upper-tier was a boxing ring that member municipalities boxed in, and never itself a boxer. Also important was the fact that the upper-tier was the regional government, and that it actually covered the territory that was the social and economic extent of the urban region.

In the early 1970s, the provincial government found religion or something, and tried to rewrite southern Ontario along the same model. Some regional governments succeeded, and some did not. The regional governments of Peel, Halton, York and Durham, all surrounding Toronto, were always in my opinion a mistake, since they were not regions in their own right, but an extension of the Greater Toronto Area. But the Regional Municipality of Waterloo, while causing controversy (the towns of Hespeler, Galt and Preston did not appreciate being forcibly amalgamated into the city of Cambridge) did cover most of its true region and did, in my opinion, work.

The Regional Municipality of Waterloo meets my criteria of how a two-tier regional government should work: the regional government encompasses the true urban region of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge and these cities’ social and economic shadow in the surrounding rural townships. The breakup of the three major cities insures that no one city ends up dominating the others, and the rural townships retain a voice. We can fiddle with the balance of powers and responsibilities, but by and large, regional issues are left to the regional council, and the people of Elmira aren’t bothered with discussing issues of local severance in the township of North Dumfries on the opposite side of the region.

Nothing remains the same, so we shouldn’t expect the region not to face questions of reform periodically, but the fact that essentially eight governments govern within a single municipal area makes two-tier governments like the region of Waterloo an easy target for neo-conservatives looking to reduce the size and number of governments. And it doesn’t help that one can point to municipal boundaries that make little sense. In Toronto, there was the case of the boundary between the city proper and the Borough of East York being indistinguishable; residential streets crossed it without so much as a sign, and it only became apparent in winter when Toronto-based snowplows drove up the street and dumped their load at the border, only to be met by East York snowplows driving down the street, dumping their load at the same area. Until the hump of snow melted, that was the only sign there was a boundary here.

In the Region of Waterloo, the boundary between the city of Kitchener and the city of Waterloo is crossed with impugnity. Except for signs on the main streets, you cannot tell where one territory ends and the other begins. As a result, a number of people have suggested that the two cities should merge. At the other end of the scale, the cities of Kitchener and Cambridge are separated by a Highway 401 no-mans-land such that, even though plenty of people live and work on both sides of the border, one can tell that there is a border, and perhaps the two cities should go their separate ways without the Region standing above them.

But I return to the question of how regional governments should work. There are issues which link the people of Elmira in the rural township north of Waterloo to the people living in south Cambridge. At the same time, there is no doubt that these two communities are wholly different in other ways. With the regional boundary encompassing all that is the Region of Waterloo, why tamper with this arrangement? Elmira and Cambridge get to keep their sense of community, but they remain just a council meeting away.

That’s what the Rae and Harris governments ultimately decided, even as they abolished Metropolitan Toronto and amalgamated its member municipalities into a megacity. The last regional reorganization simply tweaked arrangements, moving the responsibility for public transit to the upper tier (which finally allowed for through bus service between Kitchener and Cambridge). So I am doubtful of what the current suggestions can do to improve things.

My own suggestion would be to reverse a change that had been made in the last reorganization separating the upper-tier, populating it with councillors who no longer sat on the councils of the lower-tier municipalities. As Winnipeg showed, as well as Toronto after 1988, separating the tiers allows conflicts to build, as the upper-tier operates in competition with the municipalities beneath it. But other than that, I am happy with how the Region of Waterloo is governed. The governments are mostly efficient and attentive to local issues. The economy has been allowed to grow at a considerable pace. There is a sound plan in place to manage the growth of the region, and there is a definite sense of optimism in the air.

Why mess with this? What can any other model do that the current model isn’t doing?

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