Tag Archives: politics

New political landscape in Niagara – time to move on from a Conservative pet project?

There was a Federal election last week. It was of some import. Since then, there have been many articles about “WHAT THIS MEANS”. One part of one of those articles caught my eye. Maryanne Firth of the local Postmedia chains wrote about Niagara Region priorities in the wake of the election. This is particularly newsworthy since the new Liberal government has promised $125-billion for public infrastructure and St. Catharines just elected a new Liberal MP, Chris Bittle. This would seem a good time to be soliciting dollars from the Feds. Firth interviewed Niagara Region Chair Alan Caslin and he pointed out the Region’s infrastructure priorities:

caslinInfrastructure

All four of the priorities mentioned are worth looking at in depth, but the last one stood out to me. The idea of an international airport in Niagara is not a new one, but the push for international flights to Niagara-on-the-Lake continues to mystify me. Niagara has a great opportunity to receive Federal funding right now, is spending time and money on an international airport prudent?

Niagara is getting an airport?

Actually, Niagara already has two airports. The Niagara Central Airport in Pelham and the St. Catharines/Niagara District Airport (NDA) in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The NDA is located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, near the St. Catharines border and the Garden City Skyway. It currently has no regular passenger service. Its primary utility is serving small, private aircraft of no more than 15 passengers. Customs officials are on hand for aircraft landing from the United States. The NDA is occasionally used by a local charitable aviation safety organization, the Royal Canadian Air Force for refueling and also for private functions. But it’s best thought of as a private small craft airport.

The NDA is a publicly owned, controlled jointly by the municipalities of St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Each municipality provides a city councillor to the NDA Commission and elects other, non-political representatives. Including the politicians, St. Catharines has fours reps, Niagara Falls has three and NOTL has two. The airport is funded by contributions from the three municipalities, plus its own revenue. We will get to the financials of the airport in a later section.

Why is updating the airport a priority now?

The push to for investment to convert the airport to an international airport with regularly scheduled large passenger aircraft is not new. The idea has been revisited intermittently since at least 1993, but let’s look back at when the current push began to pick up steam in earnest.

2011 – Nearly $12-million is granted to the NDA for capital investments in equal installments by the Federal, Provincial and Regional governments. The money is intended for improvements to the terminal and runways.

2012 – A “bun fight” emerges between the NDA Commission and the Mayors/CAOs of the three municipalities who oversee the Commission. The Commission wants to make the airport more robust, and the oversight committee is fine with that but wants ultimate control on the amount spent (since it is coming out of their respective municipality’s budget.) [Former] St. Catharines Mayor Brian McMullan attempts to avoid hearing from the Commission when City Council debates the relevant motion. In response, somewhat controversially, [former] St. Catharines Federal MP Rick Dykstra becomes involved in this municipal issue and arranges a private meeting with the Commission where only 6 of the 12 city Councillors are invited (Siscoe, Harris, Stack and Washuta attend.) This meeting is the subject of a complaint to the Ontario Ombudsman. The ombudsman report summarizes itself with:

However, as discussed, while the meeting did not technically violate the Act, closed meetings between members of Council and Local Boards have the potential to fuel public speculation and mistrust. As such, the commission may wish to consider a more transparent and open approach to such gatherings in the future where practicable. In this case, in order to avoid public speculation, the Commission might have considered inviting members of St. Catharines Council to a public meeting of the Commission to hear its concerns, particularly since the Commission’s view on the mandate changes was already presented at public Council meetings held in Niagara Falls on November 27, 2012 and in Niagara-on-the-Lake on December 3, 2012.

2013 – Niagara Region and the Tourist Partnership fund a study on the viability of passenger service in and out of the NDA. The report surprisingly finds that the NDA’s best bet would not be domestic flights to NDA but international service from the US; but the airport would need to be upgraded to the tune of $8-million. An unnamed US airport carrier commits to twice daily service between the NDA and New York City if the airport is upgraded. However, there is a catch. The unnamed carrier requires a revenue guarantee of at least $1.2 million for the first year of operation. So…a soft commitment. “We’ll do it, as long as you promise us over a million dollars even if no passengers fly.”

2015MP Dykstra continues to seek support for expanding the airport. The NDA Commission advocates for Niagara Region to take responsibility for the NDA from the three local municipalities. The Commission sees this as part of the path to move from small private aircraft to international passenger flights. St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and NOTL all vote to have the Region assume responsibilities. The Region has yet to address the issue. Conspicuously, there is not the same interest in uploading the responsibility of Niagara’s other, similar airport, the Niagara Central Airport, to the Region. This causes some tension and the southern mayors endorse the Region taking control of both airports. (It should be noted that “triple majority” support is required to upload the NDA; given the four southern municipalities’ endorsement, that seems very unlikely to happen without also uploading the Niagara Central Airport.)

tripleMajority

History is boring. What’s the current status of the NDA?

As mentioned earlier, the NDA is funded by St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and NOTL with each contributing based on its population. According to its 2014 financial statement, the NDA is economically dependent on funding from the municipalities. The NDA generates $261,400 in revenue and costs $527,900 to operate. The municipalities help make up the operating difference by each providing $184,578, $122,235, and $21,687, respectively. The majority of the NDA’s operating costs are personnel ($316,800). In 2011, $11-million was granted to the NDA for capital investments by the Federal, Provincial and Regional governments; however, as of 2014, $10,762,139 of that is still sitting in the NDA’s bank account, unused. Despite that, the three local municipalities contributed another $112,374, $74,423, and $13,294, respectively, in 2014 in capital grants. So the NDA already has enough money in its coffers for the proposed upgrade. Curious.

But I could fly directly into and out of Niagara? Sweet!

That is what’s proposed. However, keep in mind those proposing it also suggest an airport that doesn’t currently offer passenger service, makes $17,000 a year in landing fees and operates at a de facto loss has a $25-million economic impact on Niagara.

There are five airports that currently provide most of the passenger service for those travelling to or from Niagara: two in Toronto, Buffalo, Hamilton and Niagara Falls New York. Buffalo, Hamilton and Niagara Falls New York are reasonably equidistant to the NDA for many Niagara municipalities. Furthermore, it is considerably more expensive to fly between the US and Canada due to Canada’s relatively high flying taxes. That’s why many traveling to/from the US fly out of/into Buffalo.

There’s a reason that unnamed carrier earlier asked for a revenue guarantee: there’s not an obvious unserved or under-served market here.

There has not been a lot in the way of compelling arguments for the airport upgrade. A lot of the “benefits” are stated in vague, politicianspeak. From St. Catharines Councillor Mike Britton, a Commission member and Dykstra ally:

brittonAirport

HOWEVER, the above catches an even bigger red flag that the rationale of expansion being an economic boon is dubious. St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and NOTL all lose money out of their budget every year to support the NDA, yet we are supposed to believe they’re giving up control of the NDA just as it is to start turning a profit? Dubious.

Conclusion

I believe that this was a passion (or pet) project for outgoing St. Catharines MP Rick Dykstra. I am not sure upgrading the airport will attract a carrier and not sure that even with a committed carrier providing seasonal service it would be an economic boon. I can understand why a politician may find bringing an international airport to their riding to be a feather in their cap. However, there’s a new Federal party in power, and though St. Catharines is still represented the governing party, the Liberals are likely to be loath to embrace a project championed by the Conservatives. Furthermore, the airport itself is in NOTL, which, along with Niagara Falls is represented by a Conservative. And not just any Conservative; one running for the interim leadership of the party.

In light of this, I think it’s safe to say that even if the airport project were an important one, those funds are unlikely to be granted from the new Liberal government’s infrastructure fund.

Bittle has said he’s motivated to fund “shovel ready” ready” infrastructure projects in Niagara. For an area that has lost Via Rail service, is still asking for daily GO service and has not sorted out its bus service, an international airport famously promoted by the rival political party seems like a wasteful transportation infrastructure ask.

The political landscape has changed (much to the chagrin of some local politicians). This will be a test to see if our local municipalities can be nimble enough and prudent enough to pivot its efforts to more worthy local infrastructure projects that are likely to receive funding. If the Federal government is willing to dole out cash, and we have an MP representing the governing party, we cannot waste that opportunity to improve.

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Councillors disrespect business leader – is gender the reason?

Fact: Niagara Region Council is made up of 31 individuals. Only 4 are women.

My post last week about an elected Regional Chair featured this 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.

I decided to look at Balsom’s presentation and the response from Councillors further. I watched it so you don’t have to, but if you’d like, you can see the video here.

The scene

1297752088866_ORIGINAL

The Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce (GNCC) represents 1,550 businesses throughout Niagara; those businesses employ 45,000 people.It is “the champion of business in Niagara.” Suffice it to say, it is an important organization.

Governance reform has been on the GNCC’s agenda for at least four years now. In a 2013 survey, 80% of the GNCC’s membership supported changing Niagara Region’s governance model to include an elected Regional Chair. In 2014 the GNCC actually asked candidates for Regional Council to commit to this governance reform.

On September 23rd, Niagara Region’s Corporate Services Committee had a motion on their agenda concerning moving towards an elected chair. So, seeing this item on the agenda, the GNCC’s CEO, Mishka Balsom, decided to ask to make a delegation to the Committee. This is common. Walter Sendzik (former CEO), Kithio Mwanzia (former policy director) and others have presented many times on behalf of the chamber at various local councils.

Balsom became CEO of the GNCC in April of this year. Prior to that she founded a successful consulting company and worked in the magazine business. She was chosen over 100 other candidates to be CEO. She’s a successful, qualified person. I’ve met her a few times; she’s a genuinely nice person and a good leader. This was her first time presenting on behalf of the GNCC to a Regional committee or council.

How’d it go?

Balsom presented a good case for why the GNCC wants to see reform, the benefits of an elected chair and how our current system is antiquated compared to other regions.

After a delegation, Councillors have an opportunity to ask questions of the presenters. This typically lasts anywhere from zero to twenty minutes. I recall in January that Kithio Mwanzia presented to St. Catharines Council on behalf of the Chamber on governance reform, which was at the time a ‘hot topic’ of some controversy in St. Catharines. His question period lasted twenty minutes. Balsom was questioned for an hour.

An hour? Why?

There was more to this story than just “Councillors make a bad decision.” Doug Herod wrote a good article in the Standard about Councillors poor reasoning for rejecting governance reform and I’ve covered that angle previously. It has happened in the past that question periods last an hour, but rarely at a Committee meeting, which often has less media presence and thus, less grandstanding, from Councillors.

The real issue, the real embarrassment, of what happened that day was the way Councillors treated Balsom. Four councillors (Quirk, Maloney, Annunziata and Heit) asked standard questions that could be expected. Some agreed with governance reform and some did not but they all asked pertinent questions and did so with a normal, respectful tone. Five Councillors asked insulting or frivolous questions in a patronizing tone.

Who said what?

Let’s keep in mind, this is essentially the “face” of the business community representing the wishes of the business community. She’s an intelligent, successful and respectful woman. She was not chastising Council or Councillors themselves and was not criticizing any of their work. [Some paraphrasing done for clarity below.]

selina_volpatti Councillor Selina Volpatti, Niagara Falls – “Ms. Balsom, I’m sure you’re aware of how we elect our Prime Minister. Could you describe to me how we do that?”

Off to a good start here. Balsom did well to deflect this insulting “question”: “You’re asking me how the political system works? I think we’re all aware of it.”

Volpatti finished by saying there was little interest in the topic, despite Balsom having just said 80% of their membership is very interested in it.

BobGaleCouncillor Bob Gale, Niagara Falls – This is where things really got going. I should point out that Councillor Gale is the Chair of two companies that are GNCC members. You would think this possible conflict would lead him to support Balsom and the GNCC. You would be wrong. Instead he used his political position to question the GNCC’s priorities, its website and its leadership:

  • “I’m looking at your website and there’s no transparency; it doesn’t say who’s on the committees. Is that standard?”
  • “When was the last time you [GNCC] made a presentation to Council?” And that would have been on what? This issue again? I’m going to suggest to you that this is not an issue in Niagara Falls. I would suggest that your Chamber, and I’ll be strong with what I say, keep your eyes on the prize. You’re in front of us on an issue here…I could stand in front of your members and see if they care about this. You’re here talking about a non-issue. I expect the chamber…” (here Gale was rightfully cut off since he was not asking questions, just telling the presenter how to run her organization.)
  • “Is this the most important item you think you should be making a presentation on?” [Balsom says “I saw it on your agenda today…] Gale interrupts: “I got no agenda please.”
  • “I support you standing up for what you think is right but I would suggest your members don’t agree with that.”

Reminder: the GNCC shouldn’t be on trial here.

AndyPCouncillor Andy Petrowski, St. Catharines – Petrowski begins by questioning Balsom and the GNCC’s organization, wondering why the decision to present to Council was made “at the last minute.” Early on Petrowski had to be reminded to keep questions to the presentation, instead of belittling the GNCC or Balsom.

  • “I just find it interesting, given our depressed economy, challenged jobs, challenged underemployment, our challenged private sector income, yet you’re in front of us today, you think this is even more burning than those issues and I would even suggest to you your internal issues of communicating with your own members, who’s on your committees and getting your website up to date. You find this to be the burning issue of that?”
  • “I was questioning your priorities.”

BartMavesCouncillor Bart Maves, Niagara Falls

  • “If we had an elected chair, would the candidate receiving the highest votes be the Chair?”
  • “I’m just curious to know what powers does the Regional Chair have now. Explain it to me.” [This is similar to Volpatti’s “how do we elect our PM” question. Balsom is forced to “prove” herself by answering simple questions. It is a childish tactic.]
  • Maves answers for her: “He doesn’t have any power.” This isn’t true. Maves is a veteran politician, who knows that the Regional Chair is very different than a Councillor, in that it’s a full-time position with dedicated staff support; the Chair also sets the legislative and financial agendas and acts as the “face” of the Region.
  • Maves brings up that a Chair could run on a platform that is different than a Councillor’s platform. So how could they work together? This happens literally every municipal election featuring a Mayor and city councillors. The sky has not, yet, fallen. Again, Maves knows this.
  • “So the GNCC hasn’t had a conversation about the number of Regional councillors?” This isn’t what’s up for discussion today, so it’s a strange criticism.
  • “Whenever this conversation comes up, because it seems instead of concentrating on the business of the Region and improving things so businesses can flourish and create jobs; we want to navel-gaze and focus on internal issues.”
  • “Inevitably also right now in municipal politics, there’s no party politics.” (I won’t blame you if your eyes just rolled out of head and across the floor.)
  • “If you’re Regional Chair and you’re raising money, inevitably the parties would get involved.” (Balsom: The GNCC is a non-partisan organization and this isn’t what we’re discussing today. This is true, this a detail that would be confronted in the process; Balsom is just asking that the process begins today.) Maves: “so your organization hasn’t had the conversation about the cost of this election, or the party’s being involved in this? It sounds like you haven’t addressed these issues.”

After ten minutes of untruths and spurious questioning, Maves is cut off by the Chair of the committee, David Barrick.

AlCaslinRegional Chair Al Caslin, St. Catharines – Chair Caslin starts off with a paternalistic “Hi Mishka. Tough room.” Ah, the proverbial arm around the shoulder. Then, in just about the most condescending tone possible: “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?”

With that, Balsom’s hour of grilling comes to an end.

So what does this mean?

At best, this incident shows us that our Council, which is apparently “open for business“, is not even interested in hearing from the business community. If someone as prominent and important as the CEO of the GNCC has their delegation used as an excuse to put their organization and leadership on trial, why would any citizen feel confident sharing their own opinions?

I will leave it to you to decide if her gender played a role in her treatment. What I can say, again, is I have witnessed many occasions that Walter Sendzik, Kithio Mwanzia and other male Chamber representatives presented to local councils just like Balsom did. Rarely are they questioned for as long as Balsom was. They never had their own competency or their organization’s competency questioned. They were not insulted with childish questions.

Leaving aside that Balsom is a woman. Leaving aside she is the face of an important community in Niagara. Leaving aside she’s a successful person. Leaving aside she’s a smart person. Leaving aside she’s a nice person. She’s a person and she deserves dignity and respect from our elected representatives. She did not receive these.

If Niagara is going to progress we need to demand better of our elected representatives. We need diverse, thoughtful and intelligent representation.

We need a Council that respects its citizens, no matter their opinion, their sexual orientation or their gender identity. We are not receiving this.

But hey, at least they gave themselves a pay raise.

External links:

Doug Herod: http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2015/09/25/herod-councillors-are-legends-in-their-own-minds-2

Niagara This Week: http://www.niagarathisweek.com/news-story/5927386-regional-politicians-reject-idea-of-directly-elected-regional-chair/

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.