Waterloo Region Ponders Reforms


The issue of regional reform is again on the agenda here in Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge. I’ve seen various reform movements come and go since coming here in 1991, and it’s clear that the talk of amalgamation or other reforms is this region’s equivalent of our national toothache.

A bit of background: the Regional Municipality of Waterloo is an area that used to be occupied by Waterloo County. In 1974 (I think), the provincial government entered into a period of regional reorganization, flush from their success at the creation of Metropolitan Toronto, and the various “mini-Metros” in the counties surrounding it.

The theory was, as urban areas grew past certain critical levels, issues came into play which stretched beyond the political organization (village, town, city) that used to manage that urban area, and affected the surrounding townships and municipalities. Rather than amalgamate the affected areas, an urban county structure was set up so that the city and its surrounding townships could meet to discuss regional issues, while protecting local autonomy.

Before 1950, the urban/rural political structure of Ontario owed its existence to the Baldwin Act of 1849, dividing Upper Canada into a series of counties, and subdividing the counties into a series of townships. Waterloo County, for instance, had within it the townships of Wellesley, Woolwich, Wilmot, Waterloo and North Dumfries. Each township would have a council to deal with local issues, and each township would send a representative or two to sit on county council and discuss county issues. Urban communities of a certain size were incorporated into villages or towns; these had their own councils, which also sent their own representatives to the county council.

But if a community passed a certain threshold (around 10,000 people) and became a city, it was deemed to be big enough to handle all of its own concerns. It no longer sent representatives to the county council and was effectively removed from the county. Thus counties like Wellington have a great big hole in them where a city like Guelph resides.

But following the Second World War, this model of urban governance started to break down in Toronto. Development, held back by almost twenty years of depression and war, boomed and sprawled, and Toronto soon found itself surrounded by small towns and villages facing the challenges of rapid growth. Those that had been blessed with a large percentage of industrial development (Leaside and New Toronto), were rolling in money, but many others faced bankruptcy or the collapse of their infrastructure thanks to the pressures of development. Toronto itself faced a cash crunch thanks to the need to rebuild aging infrastructure, and increase its road and transit network to handle the influx of traffic.

In 1953, Toronto demanded that the province allow it to amalgamate the twelve surrounding townships, towns and villages, taking on the boundaries of today’s megacity. The surrounding suburbs opposed this idea strenuously, seeking to maintain their local autonomy. Some suggested some sort of revenue and service sharing agreement, but the province took a different route, however, and created what was essentially an urban county, which it called Metropolitan Toronto.

The province lopped off the territory south of Steeles Avenue, which had previously belonged to York County, and it forced Toronto (which was separate from York County) into a county council arrangement with its twelve surrounding suburbs. Each council sent representatives to the metropolitan council, which was responsible for regional development, public transportation, police, fire (eventually), sewer, water and arterial roads. The surrounding municipalities were able to borrow off of the incredible equity Toronto’s downtown core offered to fund the infrastructure they needed to grow, and downtown Toronto was able to make use of the development charges from the surrounding suburbs to fund the renewal of its infrastructure.

The result was the most successful metropolitan council in the history of North America. Toronto experienced a period of rapid growth that did not falter until the late 1980s when a similar situation as 1954 developed: a centre city which had run out of developable land, surrounded by autonomous suburbs competing for investment. Unfortunately, the provincial government missed several opportunities to create a metropolitan council for the Greater Toronto Area, likely because such a government would be so big as to challenge the provincial legislature for prominence.

The two-tier urban county model is what Waterloo Region has been built on, and outside of Toronto, I think it has been the most successful regional federation in the province. This is because Waterloo Region has all of the features that a regional government should have: its regional council administers the whole of the urban region, not parts of it (as Peel, York and Durham on the borders of Toronto do). The local councils themselves administer distinct communities. Thus both sides are able to do their jobs: the lower tier councils provide a voice for the local communities which might not be heard in the chatter of a single region-wide council, and the regional council provides a venue where issues spanning the local councils’ jurisdictions can be discussed.

Unfortunately, the two-tier structure of municipal government becomes an obvious target to neo-conservative types out looking for simple solutions that appear to reduce the size of government. After all, why should eight governmental jurisdictions share territory when one government could do the same job? That was the argument that went before Mike Harris when the question of Metropolitan Toronto’s reform came up. Of course, if six governments are better then seven, one government is better than six, and thus we had the amalgamation, and the current, nearly-dysfunctional, megacity.

This isn’t to say that the relationship between the tiers shouldn’t ever change. Cities do change, and the Region of Waterloo has been able to change with it. In 2000, the latest round of regional reorganizations moved public transit from the local to the regional tier, merging two separate agencies (Kitchener and Cambridge transit) into a single system (Grand River Transit). The residents of the region have been big beneficiaries of this consolidation.

But the promised hundreds of millions of dollars in savings from the amalgamation of Metropolitan Toronto into a single megacity proved to be illusionary. And the distinctiveness of Kitchener from Cambridge, Cambridge from Waterloo puts obstacles in the way of proposals some politicians make to amalgamate our region’s eight councils into one. The Region of Waterloo works too well, and deals with too many trans-regional issues to be pulled apart easily. Some call for the region to be broken into two cities (Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge, divided by Highway 401), while others suggest that the name for the single city could either be Waterloo, Kitchener-Waterloo, or Grand River or Conestoga.

The issue is back again now that a group of local politicians have set up a taskforce looking into the issue of amalgamation. They’re careful to claim that amalgamation isn’t their only option; instead, it’s just one of many ideas they’ll investigate to see how local government can be improved. And in this respect, I appreciate their efforts and look forward to reading their report, but I have my doubts over whether radical changes, like amalgamation, or regional dissolution, could work.

My changes amount to tinkering. Two elections ago, the regional reformers made the serious mistake of arranging for the direct elections of regional councillors, and the separation of the two tiers. Regional councillors other than the local mayors no longer sit on their respective local tier councils. That’s a big mistake, in my opinion, and one which preceded the ultimate demise of other regional governments, including Toronto in 1988, and Greater Winnipeg in the 1950s.

I’d also suggest that Kitchener City Council needs more councillors. The council is half the size of Guelph despite administering an area with twice the population. The fact that there is no single downtown ward is something that needs correcting. I’d say, add another ward, and bring Kitchener’s four regional councillors back to sit on the lower-tier council, and the arrangement would be just about perfect.

The economy is strong here, and growing. And despite some hiccups, the local councillors and the mayors enjoy my support. We should continue to tinker as needed as the area continues to grow and change, but we risk losing something precious if we just throw the old structure away.

So, to the Citizens for Better Government I say: good luck in finding improvements. Just consider all your proposals carefully.

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