Can the Tories rebuild their relationship with municipalities?

OPINION: A year of rapid, large-scale policy changes from Queen’s Park has many local officials feeling the strain. Here’s how the Tories could start mending fences
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 22, 2019
Steve Clark
Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark addressed attendees at this year’s Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference, in Ottawa. (facebook.com/steveclarkmpp)

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Doug Ford isn’t the first premier to upset mayors and councillors. The provincial and municipal governments have different interests: when push comes to shove, Queen’s Park does what it wants, and the province’s cities and towns have to live with that. Certainly, Kathleen Wynne disappointed municipal leaders during her time. C’est la vie.

But Ford’s tenure at Queen’s Park has been something different, something municipalities arguably haven’t seen in nearly a generation. The Liberals were occasionally disappointing but mostly even-keeled; the Tories’ first year has been a whirlwind — they’ve tackled everything from land-use planning to public health to a review of how regional municipalities’ governments are structured.

“I think the [Progressive] Conservatives came to last year’s conference with a bit of a swagger, a bit of ‘we know what we’re doing,’” Innisfil mayor Lynn Dollin told TVO.org on Thursday morning, a day after the close of the 2019 Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference, in Ottawa. “But what I found this year: they came very much in a listening mode. I heard ‘partnership’ more than once, and I think they realized we need to work together — you need to listen to municipalities.”

Dollin, a past AMO president, credited Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark for rebuilding some of the bridges that have been burned, or at least charred, since the 2018 election.

“He’s always been ready to work with us,” Dollin said. “Now I think we’ve got the entire government’s attention.”

Clark is definitely proving to be an asset for the government: a former mayor, he’s been a calm head in a government that could use a few more of them. At the beginning of the year, he backed away from a controversial proposal that would’ve allowed municipalities to overrule environmental legislation, including the Greenbelt Act. He was by the premier’s side when the government announced, after the spring budget, that it would be calling off planned retroactive cuts. Municipalities may not always love his decisions — the review of regional municipality governments and changes to planning rules, for example, have drawn criticism — but he “speaks municipal” in a way that many appreciate.

Dollin emphasized that, while there have been high-profile disagreements — such as the one over the spending cuts, which will now hit public health beginning in January 2020 — the Tories have made progress on issues that are important to municipalities: “double-hatting” firefighters, for example, and joint-and-several liability.

One of the big unresolved issues is the review of regional governments, which could see the province amalgamate or divide some municipalities. Clark told AMO delegates that he won’t be making any decisions until after the legislature returns in the fall; that leaves some councils stuck in limbo, waiting for the province to act before they make major decisions.

“The regional review is hanging over the heads of politicians and inhibits their ability to make serious decisions that affect people’s lives on a day-to-day basis,” Brampton councillor Michael Palleschi said during the “minister’s forum” on Tuesday afternoon, when councillors and mayors had the opportunity to pose questions to Clark and the rest of cabinet directly. Palleschi got some applause when he asked Clark for clarity as to when the government would make its changes known and whether it would be transparent with voters about its reasoning. Clark, though, simply reiterated that he hadn’t yet seen a final report from special advisers Michael Fenn and Ken Seiling and that he wasn’t prepared to anticipate the outcome of their work.

The opposition parties at Queen’s Park were blunt in their assessment of Ford’s first year in power: it bad.

“By pushing a higher proportion of funding onto municipalities, Doug Ford is moving billions of dollars of burden onto your budgets and your property-tax payers,” NDP leader Andrea Horwath told AMO delegates during her speech on Monday. “And he’s putting at risk the programs that keep people healthy and safe, from clean-water testing to containing outbreaks.”

When Green Party leader Mike Schreiner spoke with reporters on Tuesday, he said simply, “This government has broken the trust” with municipalities.

It’s not just elected officials who are feeling anxious. StrategyCorp, a consulting firm with a specialty in municipal affairs, earlier this week released its 2019 survey of city managers and other top officials — and it makes for grim reading.

The “fiscal stress” that municipalities regularly complain about appears only to be getting worse. According to one of the survey’s anonymous respondents, “The biggest thing keeping me up is staying one step ahead of the whole house of cards falling down. In the face of all this change, how do you keep up staffing and recruitment, balance the budget, improve services, and maintain infrastructure? It’s all interrelated.”

Taxing and spending problems may be old hat for municipalities, but the Tories’ rapid and large-scale policy changes appear to be making everything harder.

“They have proven by their actions that they are not a considerate partner,” said one official. “Too many [provincial officials] have no idea what is going on in municipalities,” said another.

In short, elected officials and their top civil servants in the municipal world are begging the government to slow down, to think before it acts, to listen. Dollin, for her part, said she’s “cautiously optimistic” about what the coming year will hold for municipal-provincial relations.

“I think we have to work together — that’s the key,” Dollin said. “I think as long as they listen and work with us, they’ll get a good reception next year at the conference.”

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