It looks like the municipal restructuring of the Ottawa-Carleton region is finally going to happen. So big deal, you – like so many other ratepayers – say. This has been going on for so long that it is hard to get interested or enthused about the issue. But maybe now is the time to find out what all the talking can mean for our local representation. The provincial government really seems serious about putting the reforms into place before the next municipal elections in November 2000.
There are some non-elected individuals who are concerned about how the local issues, like traffic calming, zoning adjustments, parks, playgrounds and other community services, will be managed under a restructured Region. Some of those individuals recently put their thoughts into words posted on the community discussion group of the National Capital FreeNet (NCF).
The assumption underlying all the discussions was that the Ottawa-Carleton region would have less local government with a larger role for the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton (RMOC). The following is an edited version of the discussion.
Erwin Dreessen started the process with an extensive treatise on the implications of restructuring on residents of a particular community and how to ensure their views continue to be heard.
Dreessen said: “Adherence to the subsidiarity principle, in this sphere of life as in others, should guide all concerned. That is, what does not affect the life of others should be decided without them. In practice, applied to municipal affairs, I submit that what it means is that minimum standards must be set at the highest attainable level but implementation and even variance within defined constraints can be left to the local level.”
Contrary to the opinions of many others, Dreessen indicated, “It would therefore be wrong to assign “parks” or “recreation”, for example, to some lower “borough” level. Key policies and budget allocations in these and all other areas need to be set at a region-wide level, as does a zoning by-law (if we need one). Arrangements regarding maintenance, program operations or, within certain parameters, setting of priorities can and should be done at lower, including neighbourhood levels.”
Wards and boroughs
His mention of borough is the result of media stories reporting the thinking of politicians and academics about how local issues can be managed within a single, region-wide bureaucracy. Their ideas suggest the newly-restructured region be subdivided into smaller geographic units such as wards or boroughs which may or may not respect current municipal boundaries. The amount of power or responsibility these boroughs would have is a question of much interest and debate.
For example, Dreessen states: “Attempts to assign borough councils so much power that they begin to resemble a lower level of government must be resisted. I see no need for borough councils attaining the status of committees of city council. The idea that five, let alone three voices could have significant decision-making power over citizens' quality of life is abhorrent, yet this is what the University of Ottawa's “Borough Model” paper of 1999 appears to imply. Its proposed list of borough responsibilities should be drastically curtailed and never include amendments to the zoning by-law, or site plan or subdivision approvals. Applicants or citizens affected by borough council decisions should have an avenue of appeal prior to having to resort to the Ontario Municipal Board.”
“In short,” he continues, “I see, along with strong regional government, the utility of a network of neighbourhood, ward and borough councils where issues can be discussed, ideas tested and programs delivered in accordance with local preferences. Regional government should empower these councils through budget allocations, fees-for-service contracts, etc. and regional council should set the minimum performance standards, which lower level councils should always be free to exceed.”
Community councils favoured
David Gladstone responded with a few thoughts of his own. “I don't support the borough concept; they would constitute a ‘pseudo' second-tier and would give Councillors which a resident didn't elect (i.e., the Councillors from the ‘other' wards in a borough) a lot of authority over his local life. A much better - and democratic - approach would be to give Ward Councillors a real say over issues in their Ward through having them chair community councils. I see these community councils as handling variances, minor zoning amendments, reviewing community centre and recreation programs, reviewing City on-street and off-street parking policies in the Ward, and reviewing property standards and noise bylaw enforcement in the Ward.”
“I see the community councils,” Gladstone continued, “as being mandated by the restructuring legislation with members being selected and remunerated in much the same way as Ottawa's Committee of Adjustment. Currently, COA members are appointed by City Council for a two-year term, based on recommendations by a committee of Councillors, who review responses to ads. I don't see community councils as needing more resources than a small Secretariat of City employees (as for the Committee of Adjustment); community centre and park staff would continue to employees of line departments of the City.
“The community councils would, of course, be chaired by the Ward Councillor, and they would be held accountable by their constituents for how they handle this responsibility. With respect to variances and minor zoning amendments, community council decisions could be appealed to the OMB.”
David Darwin took issue with some aspects of Gladstone's proposal. He said, “I understand you see some sort of elected ward council. Would that be required? Could there not be a meeting called monthly (say), chaired by the Councillor, in which residents show up and discuss whatever local issues require attention or input at that time. The meetings would have to be well run (a challenge at times) and the information presented in such a way that all the facts are “on the table”. Specific reports or documents could be placed on the web and in the local community hall for review beforehand.”
Based on his experiences in Carlington, Darwin indicated, “I would suspect a certain core of individuals would make it a policy to become informed on the issues and be able to speak up at the meetings to provide counterbalance or additional insight for the gathered masses.
“Of course, the problem with this approach is given the right issue (traffic calming for instance), a large contingent representing one side of the issue could dominate the meeting. But that is where the Councillor comes in - taking input, providing additional information and ultimately reaching a decision as the elected official.”
Community associations excluded
“I see the community council (or ward) council,” Gladstone posted in response, “members selected (from applications) while not giving community associations, which would still have lots to do, any formal role.
“I don't see any need to elect the community council members; after all, members of advisory committees aren't elected. What is important is to have constituents holding the Councillor accountable for working well with the community council.”
Another contributor, Wallace McLean, wanted to know how many wards there would be and how the boundaries would be determined. “With the rough rep-by-pop model of ward-drawing,” he said, “and periodic redistribution, you'll end up with wards that are rather artificial and arbitrary in terms of delimiting communities that actually exist on the ground. Either real communities will get split up, or communities will be artificially lumped in with others with which they have little in common.”
This is a real issue for Carlington. In the past, it has been grouped with Westboro and now south Ottawa (Mooney's Bay). Its links in either case with the rest of the ward were extremely tenuous. Because of its geographic situation and demographics, it often seemed to be the leftover piece added to some other ward or jurisdiction to make it balance.
Darwin said, “For once I wish we could have an identity and not have our issues swallowed up by the larger remainder of the ward.” McLean responded by saying, “You can avoid this if you are willing to throw rep-by-pop out the window. My solution would be a dual-system council. Say, fifteen wards, with ten others elected at-large across the city, all sitting as one council. There are other cities that have a similar set-up (e.g. St. John's), and even with 25 members would still be smaller than the current number of municipal politicians that we have.”
And so the debate continues. If you wish to join the discussion, log on to the NCF and search for the Virtual Community Association. But hurry, a decision on regional structure is imminent -- we hope!