Author Archives: greg miller

About greg miller

"Who would start a political blog about an area where only 40% of residents can be bothered to vote?" Me, cause I'm an idiot. Follow along or on Twitter @niagaranext for my ramblings about all things Niagara, with an eye on the future in particular.

2 Billion Dollars and Zero Mandate – Niagara’s highest paid municipal politician

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.)

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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

Oh.

Well at least they voted themselves a pay raise?

external links:

  1. Region budget information: http://www.niagararegion.ca/government/budget/2015-budget-overview.aspx
  2. Niagara This Week: http://www.niagarathisweek.com/news-story/5927386-regional-politicians-reject-idea-of-directly-elected-regional-chair/
  3. St. Catharines Standard: http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2015/10/05/review-of-regional-chair-selection-a-no-go
  4. Municipal leaders’ salaries and information (2013): http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2013/04/01/democracys-price-tag-niagara-politicians-pay

Dykstra Story: A quick response to the response to the response

So, this story came out: “An Underage Girl Says She Was Offered A Bribe To Deny Drinking With Conservative MP Rick Dykstra”

Then people (over)reacted to that story in a fairly predictable way (partisans on both sides reacted with typical extreme shock/derision or obfuscation/defensiveness; almost everyone at least thought the story was “interesting.”)

Then Grant Lafleche in the Standard wrote a response to that response: When Is A Scandal Not A Scandal

I’m not going to do a point-by-point review of Mr. Lafleche’s article, but a quick response:

(Also, the Standard’s headline of the story including “scandal” (and Grant using that word in his column) when very few had referred to it as such, isn’t helpful.)

The problem starts early when Mr. Lafleche writes “some young women apparently posted to social media that they got some drinks from his table where the bottles of vodka were.” That’s obfuscation. The truth is, two underage girls alleged Mr. Dykstra purchased them drinks; which is very different than merely wandering over to his table and taking drinks he bought for his party.

So what we have is a fairly significant accusation (buying booze for minors), which Buzzfeed then attempted to corroborate and found more info (screen grab of the alleged ‘bribe’, another witness at the end of the story.)

I believe that the accusation is unproven and that Mr. Dykstra had nothing to do with the bribe, which I agree with Mr. Lafleche was hardly a bribe offer at all. But I think it is wrong to suggest that there’s “no story here” and criticize another outlet that took the time to look into it when, apparently, the Standard’s investigation was only to speak to Mr. Dykstra at the time of the incident.

It’s worse of Mr. Lafleche to say, as he does, “if true, so what?” So what? Supplying alcohol to minors results in a fine and appearance in court for any adult. (Also, Mr. Lafleche propagates the falsehood that if you’re in a bar you assume everyone is of age by writing “You’d just presume that everyone there is old enough to drink.”. As anyone who has ever been to a bar or been a teenager knows, that is either absurdly naive or just an attempt at mitigation. Mr. Lafleche himself later in the same column calls out this falsehood when he writes “beyond some teenagers getting into a bar (as though that has never happened before).”

Suggesting a significant accusation is only a story because Niagara is bored is quite unfair. I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Lafleche, but would have expected more from his response column.

The accusation appears to be unproven, so maybe we should all move on to something else.

N1agara: Cui Bono?

Hubbub about One Niagara City (N1agara is my chosen, 21st-century moniker) has cropped up again recently, due to a meeting of local business leaders.  (http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2015/06/23/region-gets-blast-from-business-sector)

Let me start by saying George Darte and Tom Rankin are great business leaders and great community leaders. Each has made a large, lasting and positive impact in Niagara through both their businesses and their community work. It is important, however, to remember that they are not a Business/Community Leader. Being successful in business does not necessarily mean you’re going to become a community leader, and being a community leader does not require you to be a business person. In a similar vein, it is important that we are able to separate “what’s good for the business community” and “what’s good for the community.” These will (often) be one and the same, but not always.

I’ve discussed N1agara previously (https://niagaranext.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/oneniagara/) but wanted to try to answer a more specific question this time around. Namely: Cui Bono? Who benefits from N1agara? Without re-stating my previous post in its entirety, a quick summary: Niagara does not have a single urban centre the region revolves around, amalgamation has not found success where it has been tried and finally, amalgamation does not lead to a decrease in municipal spending (http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/01/13/amalgamation_brought_fewer_ontario_cities_but_more_city_workers_report_finds.html).

The last point is an important one, as cutting costs leading to reduced taxes is the most frequently cited argument for N1agara. In many ways, amalgamation is more about taxes than it is about governance. Improved service delivery and “cutting red tape” are usually cited as potential byproducts of amalgamation. But make no mistake, the crux of the pro-N1agara argument is about cutting costs.

In fact, in the very Standard article that kick-started the recent outbreak of hubbub, here are some quotes from local business leaders:

“[W]e want one City of Niagara. That’s your first line item in cutting costs.”

“We have to do something, we’re almost bankrupt. We’ve got seniors who can’t afford to pay our taxes. We’ve got working people who can’t afford to pay our taxes”

“If (the interest rate) spikes — if Putin decides to start shooting, which he probably will and the interest rates start climbing, you are bankrupt,” Fox said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggression in Ukraine. You are going to be going the way of Detroit. There’s a part of me … that actually would like to see that happen, because it would solve the problem. So if you don’t want that to happen … stop spending money. We need a plan to significantly pay off the debt over time.”

(I included that last one for comic relief; the idea that an outbreak of a large-scale war with Russia would be particularly worrisome for us locally because of Niagara Region’s debt load is hilariously single-minded, and only topped by comparing us to Detroit, a city that claimed bankruptcy for a multitude of reasons but had a debt load 3600% higher than we do currently. Maybe don’t use the “Detroit” comparison quite yet…)

Sounds like our taxes compare negatively to the rest of Ontario.

http://www.niagararegion.ca/government/budget-taxes/municipal-tax-comparisons.aspx

It would appear our tax rates for similar residential, commercial and industrial properties is actually close to the lowest among comparable municipalities in Ontario . In fact, businesses seem to get a big break in Niagara, considering the lower tax rates for residential, commercial and industrial properties. Certainly, at worst, our tax rate could be considered “normal” if not “low”. This leaves alone other ways businesses are aided in Niagara, like development charges being waived (http://www.niagarafallsreview.ca/2013/01/18/region-waives-development-charges-for-industry), or money simply handed to businesses by government  to the tune of 19.7 million dollars (http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2015/04/22/speedway-incentives-approved ) (talk about picking winners and losers.)

What about that pesky debt rate, how does it compare?

Long-Term Liabilities (debt)/Capita
Hamilton  $                     702.83
Durham Region  $                     343.47
Waterloo Region  $                     840.46
Niagara Region  $                     606.58

So, amalgamation wouldn’t help cut costs, and Niagara doesn’t currently have significantly higher taxes or debt load even if it did. So why is the business community crying out for lower taxes (by way of N1agara)?


Cui Bono?

If taxes aren’t the reason businesses are staying away (as our tax rates are good or normal), lowering them further won’t help attract more businesses. Even if N1agara did lead to lower taxes, (which we’ve seen it hasn’t), who would benefit from this? Currently established businesses (like I don’t know, all the ones at the roundtable at the Region this week) would save significant amounts of money right away if taxes were lowered. Cuts to services would be required, as we have seen that attrition alone isn’t enough to put amalgamated municipalities in the black. Even if laying off staff was enough, it just means a higher unemployment rate when those municipal workers are laid off. So unemployment goes up, services get worse and this benefits Niagara how?


 

Conclusion

The main problem with Niagara’s problems is that we have not even articulated, let alone agreed upon, Niagara’s problems or possible solutions. We have just consistently heard from the business community about its problems because it has a loud voice and a united goal ($$$). Again, I like George Darte and Tom Rankin, but this isn’t about the greater good. I’m not discounting the business community, I think good, responsible and successful businesses are important to any community. But that is just one part.

Is status quo acceptable? I think any reasonable person would say that it is not. We know that the jobs issue is a big one, but is it the only one? Is it a cause of problems or a symptom of problems or both?  Is the problem that we are spending too much or not spending enough to provide better services that may attract businesses and people? Are we overgoverned, misgoverned or adequately governed? Should we amalgamate or better collaborate while maintaining our municipalities? Do we want to become a commuter, bedroom community? There are a myriad of complex questions that N1agara seeks to solve with one solution. It cannot.

It is fine (and great!) to have an opinion on the proper way forward, but it should be backed up by facts, precedents and impact if it is to be taken seriously. An absolutely exhaustive statistical analysis of amalgamation is beyond my scope, but it also hasn’t been carried out yet, so why are still putting the N1agara horse before the analysis cart?

My opinion? Sure, you’ve come all this way: leverage our advantages (like tourism dollars and proximity to the border) to provide better services (roads, transit, community programs) without increasing taxes. Instead of a flat tax cut across the board, give the thousands of non-local students who graduate every year here a reason to stay in Niagara by providing property tax breaks for hiring Brock or Niagara College grads. Grow the population by making Niagara attractive to all, not just corporations. Address the complex issues with intelligent, nuanced solutions. Simple? Yes. But it requires a lot of cooperation and hard work.

Just one citizen’s opinion.

How Each of the Five Mayoral Candidates Can Win*

The St. Catharines Mayoral election has approximately 10 more days of campaigning left. The race is wide open, and frankly, victory is available for the taking. In this post I’m going to lay out how each candidate can win the election in the next ten days.

Now, according to the Forum poll from October 10th, Jeff Burch is leading the way currently. This was affirmed by Burch himself and (mistakenly) by his two main opponents at the last debate. Burch has also been touting the poll frequently in his social media accounts and website. What’s important to keep in mind though is not that Burch is in the lead, but that only 23% of committed voters are voting for Burch. Even leaving alone that other candidates could take a bite out of that 23% support in the coming days, that means over three quarters of the electorate are not voting for Burch (at this time.) Wide open.

With only one debate and 10 days left, let’s look at what each candidate can do to win.

*Some housekeeping: as genius as I am, I can’t divine a single, reasonable way that Mark Stevens or Jim Fannon can actually win the election, but they can achieve victory in different ways.

For kicks, let’s go in ascending order based on that Forum poll.

Jim Fannon (3% in Forum Poll): As stated, I don’t think Jim Fannon has a reasonable chance of winning this election. I think Jim Fannon would admit that (he admitted he was a long shot soon after filing.) Fannon’s greatest outcome in this race would be a return to relative “Niagara political” relevance. He has been on a “relevance decline” of sorts, since at least 2006 when he was the local federal Green candidate. Since then he’s done: not much, in terms of politics, save for his CKTB radio show being cancelled after a brief run. Having shed the partisan politics to focus on local, this campaign feels like a “foot in the door” for Fannon to participate in the political conversation again.

My 10-day plan for him would consist of continuing to use humour and criticism of the mainstreamers to generate mentions, but supplement that by adding to his drastic reform ideas some reasonable, short-term ideas. He has shown he can be a part of the conversation again, now he needs to show he can be a serious candidate. This means not just needling the others, but promoting some of his own ideas (even if that means writing them down.) If he does that (and stays active during the next four years), I see no reason why he can’t be a viable candidate for Regional Council in 2018.

Mark Stevens (5%): Stevens is like Fannon. Stevens is nothing like Fannon. Okay, okay. Best case scenario for Stevens, like Fannon, is political relevance, not being the Mayor of St. Catharines. Unlike Fannon, though, Stevens is coming completely out of the blue. Yes, yes, I know he’s contributed to his community in different ways in the past and should be lauded for that. But politically speaking, he’s a brand new face/voice. In a lot of ways, he’s won already. Most, if not all, the other candidates and many media voices have praised his development over the course of the campaign. He speaks honestly and has attainable goals for the city. He asked some cutting questions of his fellow candidates at the last debate and even was endorsed by one, in a way.

My plan for Stevens is simple: be better prepared at the next debate. I fully believe he will be since he’s improved in every debate, but I think he would gain a lot of points if he could go a full debate without saying “I don’t know much about that” to a question about something a prospective mayor should know. If he can prepare for those questions and deliver smart answers, he may move from fringe candidate (5% support) to something closer to mainstream. At the last debate, Stevens mentioned he wanted to see some change so it made sense to become involved and run for Mayor. I think Stevens should tweak that goal a little bit. He can get some political capital from this campaign and if he can keep it up over the next four years, a successful run for a City Council spot could be on the cards. From there, who knows? Mark Stevens for Mayor, 2022?

Peter Secord (15%): Secord is a really tough nut to crack. On the one hand, he had a lot of momentum by announcing his candidacy very early. On the other, he took some criticism for seemingly changing his stripes upon going from Councillor Secord to Candidate Secord. On the one hand, he looked to be the conservative, “book-managing” candidate a lot of people thought St. Catharines would need after a period of spending. On the other, he has allowed himself to be trumped by the introduction of a more charismatic candidate who also had conservative support**. On the one hand, he’s a strong, mainstream candidate with a local political and business background that should see him draw on Ward support and business support. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to actually want to be Mayor, compared to the enthusiasm, fervour and passion Burch and Sendzik’s campaigns have featured. He has specific plans, which is great, but they don’t seem to be engendering a lot of praise. I can’t figure him out, but maybe that’s my own failure.

**(Digression: the split in the small ‘c’ conservatives during this election could be a novella in itself. At a time when a conservative candidate had a good chance of winning, the big players (both prominent and behind the scenes) have got involved but after years of working together for Dykstra, Siscoe, Hudak etc., have divided themselves, for various personal and political reasons, between Sendzik and Secord. In the process they may have torpedoed their chance to have their ideology represented in the next term.  Would love to do a long post about it if I could ever get more inside information. So much intrigue for one part of one municipal race.)

Anyway, my plan for Secord is relatively simple. At the next debate, he needs to focus on conveying why he wants to be mayor. I have no idea right now other than maybe he thought he could and it was the next logical step. That’s not enough. The worst mud you can sling at Sendzik’s intentions is that he’s ambitious. I think that’s great. There is no doubting for me that Sendzik really, really wants to be mayor. Burch, rightly or wrongly, seems to genuinely believe he’s the best candidate to carry on McMullan’s legacy. They have genuine reasons for running and let people know about them. Secord? I don’t see it. The Federal Conservatives want to get more involved in local politics so maybe Dykstra figured Secord was his best bet. But man, don’t let people think that! So, step 1: passion and belief. Step 2: new substance. As I’ve said previously, I don’t like his tax freeze idea. I think it ultimately hurts the citizens of St. Catharines long-term for the short-term benefit of a couple bucks a month to property owners. BUT, it is an idea that will appeal to a lot of residents who don’t think long-term and just want to see their tax bill go down. These residents will vote a lot. That’s good for Secord, that’s a good play. But now he needs some new plays to supplement it. I wouldn’t promote his “business council” idea any more as it doesn’t seem to be well-thought or well-supported. Other than freezing taxes, what is the city, under Mayor Secord going to do differently? This is difficult when you’re advocating a tax freeze; it is hard to promise goodies with less money. But even just in process: will there be more public open houses? Less committees? Zoning changes to promote growth? Incentives for residential development in the downtown core? Just give us something, Secord. You have the vote of those who wish to see taxes down; but it has got you to 15%. You need more. This debate is your last chance, since you don’t utilize web or social media as well as other candidates.

Walter Sendzik (16%): A quick note: I wrote the most about Sendzik in the last post. While not a conscious choice, this was likely due my being most frustrated with his campaign. This is because as a young person in Niagara, I would love to see a Sendzik-type Mayor. He is young himself, he’s enthusiastic, he’s not an “old boy” and he has shown a genuine interest and commitment to the area’s welfare in the last 8 years.  He has a long-term vision of St. Catharines and its place in Niagara and the world. The problem? That’s all it is, a vision. Sendzik has goals and they sound well and good. His vision sounds great. When I read his website, the “vision” section sounds wonderful and makes me excited to see his plan to achieve that is vision. But there is no plan, yet. I thought originally he could run on one big idea and win because he had strong starting support and team. But he hasn’t picked a big issue to run on. It is hard for me to believe his experienced campaign team thought he could parachute into this election, have the same general vision of Burch’s campaign team and win. Harder still for me to believe anyway thought his Port Place gambit was a good one. The 16% support he has now is probably the same support he had the day he announced his campaign, which is a great starting point but I can’t imagine how he thought that number would grow without specific ideas.

My path to victory for Sendzik is simple: tell us your specific plans and don’t mention Port Place, unless it is to say “these guys haven’t done anything to whip this developer into shape, I will.” We are past the point where he can drop one big concrete idea and coast to victory. We know his team uses web and social media regularly, so use that! If I were him I would start dropping concrete, specific ideas every single day until election day (and maybe this has started, he has a video about restoring beaches up as of Wednesday. This isn’t really a plan per se, but at least an idea others haven’t touched on.)  So don’t say “increase mixed-use development downtown”; say “modernize the complex zoning by-laws that hold back downtown development and provide incentives for business and residents to re-locate there.” Not “pursue business and remove barriers” but “as my first priority, use my knowledge of business needs as former Chamber CEO to reduce wait times for permits but removing two layers of bureacracy.” You want GO Transit? Great. Everyone wants GO. How’re you the one to get it? What would you do differently than Burch or Secord? Just tell us, please. Give me a plan, not platitudes. You don’t need to work so hard selling yourself; sell your unique ideas. And don’t mention Port Place or its developer in anything other than the negative light it deserves.

Jeff Burch (23%): Burch, like Secord, is a good candidate. He has local political experience and experience within the labour movement. He seems to be generally respected a City Councillor and has strong Ward support. He has similar generalized vision points as Sendzik but has differentiated by putting out some very specific ideas on his website, such as enhancing the Enterprise Centre in St. Catharines to help businesses and his Green plan. He has generally handled himself well at debates, despite a target on his back. He has wide-ranging base of support/endorsements, from labour to politicians to educators to big business. He is the closest thing to an incumbent there is in the race, and incumbents have a great track record locally. So, having acknowledged those things…isn’t 23% a very disappointing support number? Should his campaign really be touting this as a positive that 77% of people haven’t committed to Burch?! Look, it’s a tough and big field of candidates so he gets some slack. But in a year where the conservative/corporate vote is seemingly split, and his two other candidates haven’t capitalized on opportunities, shouldn’t he have a more significant lead?!

Burch is acting like a front-runner and that is fine. I praised him for seeming mature during the last debate and I do feel he comported himself fine. But, in the last 10 days he can’t get lazy or complacent. There’s a huge chunk of people who aren’t voting for him, as of the last poll. Big or good moves by either Secord or Sendzik will seem him surpassed if he sits idle.

For the last debate, he better be prepared for the targeting and have a better answers prepared for silly questions other than just “that’s a silly question.” He will need to keep pace with the Secord and Sendzik campaigns, which should have renewed pushes in the final 10 days. It is clear from the poll that he doesn’t have the support of many, yet. How will he get that? He needs to stay active and add even more substance to his campaign. “Status quo” isn’t an exciting thing to run on. It might make sense at a time like this, but it isn’t going to motivate undecided and isn’t going to motivate supporters to make sure they vote. He needs to make it clear how a city under Mayor Burch will be improved than the city under Mayor McMullan (that doesn’t mean Mayor McMullan was bad, but people expect progress.) Finally, at the last debate he needs to come off as more mayor-like than his competitors, and that doesn’t mean remaining seated and chuckling off questions.

Everything is left to play for. Should be an exciting week. Thanks for reading.

On the #FutureIsNow Mayoral Debate and “Front-Runner” Status

Introduction

The “Jaycees” (http://jcistcatharines.ca/) put on a debate Wednesday night at the Days Inn in St. Catharines. While ostensibly aimed at younger voters (#FutureIsNow), the crowd probably skewed a little bit older than that target demographic. Being a member of the vague “young” voters myself, my only gripe in an otherwise well-planned and executed event is that the content really didn’t differ from the other debates. There weren’t many questions (or answers) specific to young voters, but maybe young voters don’t have specific questions or maybe most election issues appeal to young and older voters alike. Again, a great event though, certainly aided by the fact this was the 6th debate; Jaycees learned well what wasn’t working at previous debates.

Quick summary if you think this post is tl;dr: much improved format with more actual debating rather than just reading campaign pamphlets, 4 out of 5 candidates acquitted themselves well (sorry Secord), we didn’t hear any “new” ideas compared to past debates but did get to learn more about the prospective Mayors’ personalities and the Jaycees put on a great event.

Summary

A standing-room-only crowd met for the 6th St. Catharines Mayoral Debate Wednesday night. At stake, 33% of the electorate, anywhere from 9,000 to 15,000 undecided votes according to the most recent poll (but more on that later.) If I had to guess, I would say most in the room were decided voters, but obviously the content of the debate would reach more than just the 300-400 present.

The Jaycees are a young professionals organization, but this debate wasn’t really for young people, as witnessed by make-up of the crowd (a lot of politicians or candidates, many middle-aged or older decided supporters.) Having said that, it was encouraging to see a sizable contingent of young people, who (by my estimation) skewed pretty evenly between Burch and Sendzik supporters, though the latter probably had slightly more. (Speaking of politicians glad to see it took Andy Petrowski about six seconds to embarrass himself; shouting from the crowd at Burch during his first answer. Petrowski (and another young Sendzik staffer later for a similar infraction) had to be silenced by the moderator. Burch quickly quipped “don’t vote for Andy Petrowski.”)

The format gave each candidate a one minute introduction, several general questions that all answered, candidate-to-candidate question, answer and rebuttal, and a closing statement from each. The candidate-to-candidate questions were by far the most interesting parts of the night, inducing much laughter, oohs and cheering from the crowd.

In my opinion, the biggest issue we are currently facing in this election is we can’t find a big issue, and that continued Wednesday night. Like in the other debates, candidates generally agreed on just about every “what” and only had minor squabbles about “how”. All agree Port is a mess, all agree jobs are important, all agree downtown needs continued revitalization, all agree integrated public transit and GO are important. Now that’s not too damning an assessment of this race, as most of those things would be agreeable to most mainstream candidates.

They certainly have tried to differentiate themselves and it is nice that Port Dalhousie finally got extended more airtime after being bizarrely absent from the first debate. From what I can tell, at this point, each candidate has tried to sell themselves as the following:

Burch: status quo, leadership experience

Sendzik: business-friendly, leadership experience

Secord: two-year tax freeze, business experience

Stevens: blue-collar, non-politician

Fannon: drastic reform, positivity

Those are all fine planks to establish (except Secord’s disastrous one-issue platform, but at least he’s being bold.)

So what did we learn about each candidate and their platform Wednesday night?

Candidate by Candidate

Jeff Burch: Handled himself well despite having a big target on his back. Sendzik caught him out with a question about why Burch didn’t step down from a taxpayer-funded job at the Folks Arts Centre when he announced his candidacy. Burch never really answered, but was able to score points by reminding of the Chamber’s much-maligned survey to candidates while Sendzik was still CEO. I thought he was a bit soft on Port Dalhousie, but does have a record of being against the development. Answered a couple of other tough questions well. Stevens asked why he said he’d only run if McMullan wasn’t and whether he’s running on “more of the same.” Burch answered each honestly; yes, he is running on status quo (more or less) and that respecting McMullan’s ability as mayor doesn’t mean he lacks ambition or self-belief. Of all candidates, he came off as the most mature; I’m not sure other candidates will score a lot of points against his personality. I don’t think Secord or Sendzik will win by impugning Burch, he’s too solid (if unexciting); they should focus on selling themselves and their ideas (but more on that at the end.)

Walter Sendzik: I believe Sendzik knew this was a good opportunity for him; a debate set up by “Walter”-type people (young business pros) and had a lot of support in the room. Whether he took the opportunity is up for debate. Like I said, there weren’t many new ideas but it was a new atmosphere/format. Sendzik went for a sort of rah-rah speaking style that I’m not sure suits him and allowed the other candidates (mostly Fannon) to apply the “snake oil salesman” label. I don’t think that is fair and others might have preferred his style over the laid-back Burch and Secord. What I’ve yet to really get from Sendzik are specifics. He’s selling himself on success as Chamber CEO and I think he has a solid background to run for Mayor, but so do at least two of his opponents. He backed away from “One Niagara” that the Chamber has been associated with for a long time and instead insisted his focus was on “one Niagara economy.” Other than Port Place (more on that in a second), I’m not really sure what Sendzik’s specific plan is or how it might differentiate from Burch’s. The four things listed under his “Vision” on his website are almost comically vague (“Residents First”, “Establish St. Catharines As a Leader”, “Grow The Local Economy” and “Enhance Our Community Life”.) I think it is absolutely fine to run that you’re a strong leader with a genuine interest in your community…if you weren’t running against another strong candidate. I don’t think Sendzik has responded to the challenge of another opponent with a solid background/base. His campaign slogan is Fresh Thinking, New Ideas, but I haven’t seen the latter.

As for specifics of the debate, I think he got his message across well (again, I don’t think it’s a specific-enough message, but it’s his message.) He had good, incisive questions for the other candidates and answered their questions well (smartly “endorsing” Stevens when Fannon tried to trip him up by asking who Sendzik would vote for other than himself.) The one thing that the other candidates did catch him on was selling the success of the Chamber while simultaneously blasting the current state of employment in St. Catharines. Did you bring jobs or are there no jobs? He may want to have a better answer for that next time.

Now, as for the one issue where Sendzik clearly stands apart, is on Port Place. Sendzik (and Secord, for the record) were original and committed supporters of the development. That’s fine, many in the city were at the time. The problem is, for the last couple of years that development has been a nightmare and the developer considered a bit of a pariah. Sendzik, maybe in an attempt to differentiate or maybe because he genuinely still believes in the project (or both), has attached himself to the developer. This is just a very strange political move. I’m not sure what Sendzik stands to gain by attaching himself to someone who is universally loathed. Maybe he figures he wasn’t going to get many votes in Port Dalhousie so he’s punting that ward, but the only people who might be “won over” by this stance are probably already-decided Sendzik voters in the business community (and I can’t imagine any of them would publicly support this developer.) Odd, odd, odd. A better stance might be: “Port Place is an unmitigated disaster and the developer has been a nightmare, but Secord/Burch have had years to navigate the disaster and done nothing; it’s time for a new voice.”

Peter Secord: Wasn’t his room and frankly he didn’t seem too interested in being there. He does have a reputation on Council as a smart, if unexciting guy and I would say that has looked accurate so far. Not a lot of passion and basically took every opportunity to bang the only drum he seems to have, the “two-year tax freeze.” I think that’s a horrible idea and maybe that is making me biased against him overall. Tried to go partisan against Burch and labour/NDP, which was bizarre as Burch quickly pointed out that Rick Dykstra, Federal Conservative MP was a big part of the Secord campaign. Ended up squabbling with Fannon a lot and I don’t see much to gain there. Again, probably just not his room; can’t imagine a single person under the age of 40 voting for him but I’m sure that’s fine to him as the tax-freeze will appeal to the older voting demographic. Weird night for him, which ended with him touting his wife’s new business, for some reason. Other than appealing to older voters and siphoning some of Sendzik’s support, not sure where he fits in this campaign.

Mark Stevens: Came across about the same as he has in previous debates. He asked a lot of good questions of the other candidates and clearly has done some research on their platforms and background. As for his answers to questions, it is very odd that he’s so unprepared, answering a lot of questions (honestly, which is better than making stuff up) with things like “I don’t know much about that.” His speaking style has improved from debate to debate but he hasn’t seemed to have learned which questions he was going to be asked. Other candidates generally treated him as a non-threat, except maybe Fannon who impugned his intellectual capability at one point (for some reason?) For Stevens, I understand why he’s running and believe he has a somewhat genuine campaign. He mentioned at one point the only way to get experience is to run and be elected, which is true, but odd he would go right for top spot. Either way, he’s been a beneficial part of the conversation and has brought a different background to the race. Not sure who he will “take votes from” on Election Day; probably Burch.

Jim Fannon: Where to begin? Was probably the most entertaining candidate at the debate. I’m just not sure that’s actually a good or beneficial thing. He obviously has some personal history/issues with Secord and Sendzik that bleed a bit into his anti-business platform (though this might also be genuine seeing as he was a Green Party candidate.) Mentioned he was a realtor a lot, for some reason. Fannon’s biggest problem is the campaign already had a fringe/outsider candidate in Stevens before Fannon signed up so he doesn’t really have a role. Having said that, his needling of the three mainstream candidates was humourous and put them in awkward positions frequently. Unfortunately, all three handled these situations well, which probably wasn’t what Fannon was going for.

About Jeff Burch, “Front-Runner”:

Burch was targeted like a front-runner because, according to a new poll, that’s exactly what he is. Here’s why that wasn’t wise: he has a slim lead according to a single poll and was given more speaking time than the other candidates (which they only have themselves to blame for by asking him so many questions) because of it. Even if that poll is accurate (and I believe its validity, but has a 4% margin of error and we have seen how different polls can be in the Toronto race) here’s what that lead would mean. Here’s where the Forum poll had each of the three front-runners.

Burch: 23%
Sendzik: 16%
Secord: 15%

In the 2010 municipal election, 29,372 people voted for mayor. If we use these numbers and project them onto those Forum percentages, the election results would look like this in 2014:

Burch: 6,756
Sendzik: 4,700
Secord: 4,406

Even if this poll is 100% accurate, the third place challenge is only behind 2,350 votes; which isn’t many when 9,693 are undecided. And again, this is one poll and uses a voter count that is likely significantly lower than this year’s election. If we use a number like 38,000 (like the last time the incumbent didn’t run), that would mean 12,540 undecided voters. On top of that, another winning strategy might be to target not just undecided, but the 60,000 non-voters as well. Between undecided and non-voters, that’s approximately 72% of total potential voters (or 10 times the amount of committed Burch voters.)

Given how many votes are up for grabs treating Burch like a clear front-runner was a poor political move. When so many votes are up for grabs, don’t concede that status to a rival who only has approximately 7,000 committed voters. Theoretically, at this point, “getting out the vote” from your base might be the determiner of this election. In my mind, Sendzik and Secord should have gone after the other’s support (which they did, less so) while trying to attract a large chunk of that 33%. By giving Burch more air time, they gifted him more opportunity to woo that 33%. If they knew Burch to be a gaffe-prone buffoon, it may make sense, but they know that he is a polished politician.

Now you might say “how many undecideds were even at the debate?”, but that would suppose I’m only speaking of this debate whereas the truth is the debate was a microcosm of the campaign. Instead of promoting their own vision/connections/ideas/traits (or, at worst, going after each other), Secord and Sendzik have ceded front-runner status to Burch. And from this they may have a difficult time recovering.

With one debate left, and so much to play for, let’s see if they change tack.

Thanks for reading and would love to hear your comments below or on Twitter.

Niagara’s Red Herring – Why “One Niagara” Should Be Taboo

“Everything would be better if Niagara was One Municipality instead of 12.”

This is a phrase heard regularly by those who travel in political circles or those who care to discuss the multitude of issues currently facing Niagara.

Don’t say this phrase or some version of it. Don’t believe it or some version of it. And certainly don’t vote for any politician who says this or makes it a part of their platform for election.

red her·ring (noun)

red herring is a figurative expression referring to a logical fallacy in which a clue or piece of information is or is intended to be misleading, or distracting from the actual question

 

“One Niagara” is the most popular Red Herring around Niagara these days. Politicians offer it as a cure-all. The business community presents it as a game-changer. Citizens see it as a money-saver. Usually, the “One Niagara” idea is presented by a party and accepted by all those present as Right and Good in about the same amount of time (and with a corresponding level of consideration) as drinking a Pickle Shot at Sheehan’s.

So why is this idea bandied about so frequently and examined so rarely? There are a few reasons why “One Niagara” is such a popular idea:


 

  • “It’s simple!”

    We live in an instant-gratification society and the number one thing going for the “One Niagara” idea is that it allows us all to be lazy. It should be apparent to all who care to think that there are various complex and unique issues facing Niagara and its communities. But that sort of rational thinking gets swept away when presented with a one-size-fits-all, immediate cure for what ails us. “One Niagara” let’s us believe there is a one way to make this area great again. And look, we barely had to lift a finger.


  • “It’s not MY fault”

    Not taking responsibility is a time-honoured tradition for the human race, and I’m loathe to speak against it, but it has greatly aided and abetted the One Niagara red herring. Politicians (often elected but especially prospective) love One Niagara. You’re a city councillor and you can’t balance the budget? Lack of One Niagara. You’re a regional councillor and you can’t figure out a transit system? Lack of One Niagara. Pretty much every prospective official has to spout One Niagara because, as I said, we all love it so much. “My opponent has been Mayor for four years and yet, here are, still without One Niagara. Elect me, Jimmy Blowhard: One Niagara guy.”


  • “I’m smart and engaged”

    Saying One Niagara immediately gives off the perception that an individual knows and cares about Niagara. Whether they can elaborate on the specific solutions One Niagara gives isn’t relevant. This is a person who GETS IT and further discussion of the social, economic or political issue at end is not required. Why examine the condition of the working poor when we can’t even figure out One Niagara?


  • “Governments are bloated and there are too many workers gorging themselves on the money of taxpayers”

    This will always be popular among voters and politicians alike. Even NDP-leaning politicians would never run on “More Public Sector Employees Making More Money”. Use of taxpayer funds is a popular and sensitive subject simply because it affects all taxpayers, which is almost every Canadian in one form or another. Cutting public sector jobs and salaries is always going to play with Joe Taxpayer. One Niagara feeds off this because it is easy to make the connection between amalgamating cities and amalgamating positions. From 12 mayors to 1, lickety-split savings. It would be terrible to find out this thinking was flawed, wouldn’t it? Let’s go to the Toronto Star from earlier this year for more:

What about the idea that amalgamation will allow us to cut down on bloated government spending and pass that savings onto residents or into improving services? From the Toronto Star in January 2014: “It was dubbed the Common Sense Revolution — Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris’s 1995 campaign to slash the province’s bloated public sector through massive municipal government restructuring, to the tune of $250 million in taxpayer savings. But new analysis has found that while amalgamation technically decreased the number of municipalities in Ontario — down from 850 to 445 — and 23 per cent of elected official positions were axed, more people than ever are working in Ontario’s municipal governments. “The conclusion is very strong: amalgamation didn’t reduce the size of municipal government,” said Timothy Cobban, political science professor at Western University and lead researcher.” (http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/01/13/amalgamation_brought_fewer_ontario_cities_but_more_city_workers_report_finds.html)


Here’s the thing about One Niagara that’s the real kicker though: it is a horrible idea. The worst part about the idea isn’t that it is lazy, or that it allows politicians to pass the buck or that it curtails discussions of actual problems and solutions, or even that it is based on flawed logic. The worst part of “everything would be better if Niagara was One Municipality instead of 12” is that it is wrong.

Proponents of amalgamating Niagara into one city will often point to Hamilton or Ottawa. Both of these cities have amalgamated with area municipalities to form One City in the last 13 years. The process for both was similar: an already-existing Regional Municipality consisting of lower-tier municipalities was absorbed by its largest urban municipality to form a single-tiered municipality. Here’s the problem with these comparisons: Niagara doesn’t have a single, large urban municipality that the entire region revolves around. Niagara has three urban centres of a similar size in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland/Port. Furthermore, none of the “disappearing” municipalities from Ottawa/Hamilton had a strong tourism identity/economy like Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake do. How many tourists travel to Ancaster and Smith Falls a year? These are the two most obvious reasons why we aren’t like Ottawa and Hamilton, leaving alone issues surrounding population density and Niagara’s unique geography (far-flung cities, the Welland Canal and the escarpment, for example.)

Amalgamation was a far more obvious choice in Ottawa and Hamilton, single urban centres that absorbed their supporting surrounding communities. And guess what? In spite of their more apparent rationale for amalgamation, they have hardly been successful.  From the Rural Council, representing the communities lost in amalgamation: “Amalgamation: The Costly Experiment That Failed” (http://www.ruralcouncil.ca/amalgamation.htm). In Hamilton: “Singing The Amalgamation Blues” (http://www.raisethehammer.org/blog/872/). I could post links all day that mention the same problems, but these two give a succinct idea of the effects of amalgamation in those communities.

Ok, but what about smaller communities that amalgamated like Kingston, Central Elgin or Chatham-Kent? If Niagara isn’t like Ottawa and Hamilton, maybe its amalgamation will succeed rather than fail. Nope: since their amalgamation 17 years ago, citizens have strongly responded that their tax dollars are being used worse than before amalgamation:

“Contrary to the provincial expectation that amalgamations would result in more efficient service delivery, in every jurisdiction the majority of respondents felt that the value they were receiving for their taxes declined since amalgamation” (http://www.cjrs-rcsr.org/archives/26-1/siegel.pdf).

Citizens also have generally been more against amalgamation than for it in all three places.


 

Amalgamation has failed in every municipality it has impacted. It will fail here. We won’t see lower taxes, we won’t see less spending on politician/public sector salaries, we won’t see higher employment rates and we won’t see improved transit as a result of amalgamation. One Niagara would only make our issues worse, not better.

Everyone suffers from confirmation bias, myself included. So it’d be fair for you to think that I just found the sources that told me One Niagara was bad because that’s the conclusion I wanted. That’d be fair. So look into the issue yourself. Take the time to be able to back it up before spouting One Niagara.

As for me, I won’t ever be voting for anyone who says One Niagara is our solution; they either: 1. haven’t done the research 2.  Have done the research and are not competent or 3. Are simply trying to pass on finding real solutions to issues.

Let’s expect more Niagara. Let’s focus on real solutions and not fall victim to a red herring.