There are 125 Municipal politicians in Niagara. The highest paid of those positions earns $165,000 a year, including benefits and expenses. That particular position earns the most for a good reason: it is in charge of a corporation that has an operating and capital budget of approximately $500-million a year. For four years. That’s two billion taxpayer dollars.
And, unlike the other 124, the voters of Niagara do not elect this position: the Niagara Region Chair.
Not only is that position not elected by residents, “in Niagara, the number of residents who know who the Chair is is startlingly few” according to Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop.
Unfortunately and ironically, Mr. Redekop recently used that quote as an argument for maintaining the status quo in Niagara. I would suggest Mr. Redekop’s quote is both true and indicative of a major democratic problem in Niagara. The highest-paid Municipal politician in Niagara, in charge of the largest budget, is not even accountable to voters on election day, let alone the other 1,460 days of their term. This post is not a commentary on the current Regional Chair or any previous, but the position itself.
Residents should not only be aware of who is in charge of spending two billion of their dollars, but should have a say in choosing that person; just as they do with their local Mayor.
Wait, so if the people of Niagara don’t elect our highest paid politician, who does?
The voters of Niagara elect 18 Regional Councillors, in addition to the 12 local mayors that join them to make for a 30-member Regional Council. Then, in a backroom election process than can only be described as “opaque”, those 30 members themselves vote for one to become Chair. To recap:
- Highest-paid municipal politician in Niagara
- No one can be on a ballot, and thus be held accounted for, this position
- No one openly campaigns for this position, with any sort of platform for what their vision for Niagara
- .007% of Niagarans have a choice in this incredibly important position
The Regional Chair is a full-time position that is responsible for the legislative and economic agendas for the Region, runs Council meetings and is the primary liaison for Niagara with Provincial, Federal, and other governments.
So, while this position serves as the face for Niagara, it is only accountable to 30 people. I think it is safe to say this is hardly a mandate to direct the spending of two billion dollars.
An obvious problem, but surely we are just doing it the way others do…
Almost no one does it this way anymore. Waterloo, Halton, Durham and York have either changed to an elected chair or are in the process. Peel has begun the process.
Well maybe no one has suggested change in Niagara…
You would hope the answer were so simple.
Unfortunately, the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, representing approximately 1,500 businesses in Niagara have said an elected Chair is a priority for the business community. Seeing that, in January a motion came before Niagara Region Council to start the process of governance reform. This motion, only asking for a process to begin, was deferred. Hey, why get an early start? After deferral the motion came up again in July. Can you say deferred again?
After a motion merely asking to begin a process was deferred a second time, Niagara Regional Councillors actually had two opportunities at this. On September 22, a motion was brought forward to the Corporate Services Committee by Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn regarding beginning the process to change to an elected chair. This process would include public consultation and options for how to move forward. This motion was defeated at committee. The motion was then pulled up for discussion at the following Council, last week; a glimmer of hope, maybe a week brought everyone to their senses. Mayors Augustyn and Sendzik, among others, maybe some very sage points about why Niagara needed to update its governance while still tackling other ideas. Now was finally the time right? Nope. A directly-elected Chair was confirmed defeated.
Why was it defeated? That after the following paragraph.
First: not only was the motion defeated; at the Corporate Services Committee, the CEO of the chamber, Mishka Balsom, was subjected to many patronizing remarks from Councillors; presumably for her transgression of taking the time to represent her organization’s well-founded hope for change with a good presentation on why an elected Chair is needed. One Councillor asked Ms. Balsom if she understood and could explain how Canadians elected our Prime Minister; another suggested she wasn’t running her organization or communicating with her members correctly. This brow-beating went on for over an hour. A clip (beginning around the 25 minute mark) can be found here. I remind you, this is the representative of the greater business community being told not “thanks, but no thanks” but instead “no, you ignorant incompetent” by our fair Regional Councillors.
Now why did said fair Councillors reject having an elected Chair?
That’s where the silliness begins in earnest.
Why our highest-paid politician shouldn’t be required to have a mandate (according to Regional Councillors)
Having watched the Corporate Services Committee meeting and Regional Council, here were the “reasons” given for not progressing our current system to include an elected chair (in addition to Mr. Redekop’s “reason” stated earlier.)
- If the Chair were elected Region-wide, the smaller municipalities could never hope to have a Chair from their community.
- The elected Chair of Waterloo is from Wilmot; the smallest township in the Region of Waterloo
- A campaign for Regional Chair would require too much money, limiting candidates
- The campaign limit for elected Chair in Halton, Waterloo and Durham are higher than would be in Niagara, because those Regions are larger. But the most any candidate spent in those campaigns was very small — $16K in Halton; $56K in Waterloo; and $74K in Durham
- This means the Chair position would be no more limited than any Mayoral campaign in Niagara
- We don’t have time to address this issue and/or there are more important issues
- You’re laughing at my deep cynicism for satirizing a politician for claiming they can’t do their job (addressing issues) because they’re too busy; unfortunately this is actually what happened.
- How addressing one issue prevents you from addressing another will always be beyond me. Maybe Regional Councillors cannot walk and talk at the same time.
- Waste management is more important than snow removal, so should Regional Council not address snow removal on regional roads?
- The very idea that this particular Regional Council is short on time is absurd. Two of their last four meetings have lasted less than two hours (four and a half hours are allotted for meetings.)
- Quite a few Councillors said their focus is “jobs and the economy”. The effect Niagara Region Council can have on the macroeconomics of the job market here is a post for another time, but suffice it to say it registers as absurd when the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce suggests a change important to its members (businesses), that the suggestion is dismissed as not being aligned with what’s good for jobs and the economy.
So what now?
In the end, only seven Councillors supported beginning the process of having a democratically-elected Regional Chair. These seven were: Augustyn, Baty, Edgar, Hodgson, Rigby, Sendzik and Timms. The rest ensured we could not even begin the process until 2019; with earliest implementation in the 2022 election.
Is a directly-elected Regional Chair the most important issue facing Niagara? Hardly. Is it even top 50? Arguably.
Could it have been addressed by this group of Regional Councillors while still addressing other priorities? Absolutely.
Is it emblematic of the state of Niagara that citizens of Niagara’s first opportunity, with good fortune and better politicians, to hold their highest-paid politician accountable through voting will be in 2022? Absolutely. We are already well-behind governance reform compared to other regions. We will be even more so by 2022. Keep in mind these are the same regions that our Councillors often wistfully wonder why they’re improving at a faster rate than Niagara.
During Ms. Balsom’s presentation, our current (unelected) Regional Chair asked her this: “Would it be OK with you if we stopped talking about ourselves and got on with our strategic plan and our focus on prosperity and creating jobs in Niagara?”
Because, hey, if they aren’t addressing this issue, it is because they’re busy with others right? I will let Brock University poli sci professor David Siegel answer that: SIEGEL: Not much to show for council’s Year 1
Well at least they voted themselves a pay raise?
- Region budget information: http://www.niagararegion.ca/government/budget/2015-budget-overview.aspx
- Niagara This Week: http://www.niagarathisweek.com/news-story/5927386-regional-politicians-reject-idea-of-directly-elected-regional-chair/
- St. Catharines Standard: http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2015/10/05/review-of-regional-chair-selection-a-no-go
- Municipal leaders’ salaries and information (2013): http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2013/04/01/democracys-price-tag-niagara-politicians-pay