Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Amalgamation, De-Amalgamation and Governing Cities

It's hard to come to consensus with a group of people who fundamentally disagree, or see the world in different ways. On the provincial and federal levels we have political parties that help smooth out the disagreements between different regions and interests. At the municipal level the small differences of geography play a much greater role and often feed into fundamentally different perspectives on how a city should be governed. Last week the Fraser Institute released a report that suggested that amalgamation did nothing to cut the costs it was intended to do.

The metaphor that you cannot put toothpaste back in the
tube is often applied to amalgamation, but is it impossible to undo?

Spacing had a piece by Sean Marshall about the recent Toronto vote on the Gardiner East's future and amalgamation. Some observers looking at how the vote broke down said that this was the perfect argument for de-amalgamation. Amalgamation in Toronto has been blamed for a number of woes, including much wasted time on transit projects and the election of Rob Ford.

Toronto is hardly unique in its concerns. In the Region of Peel there has always been squabbles between the three municipalities that make it up: Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon. For much of Peel's past the conflict has been between Mississauga, the largest of the three, and its smaller partners. Former Mayor Hazel McCallion often raised the spectre of Mississauga as a single-tier city, like Toronto or Guelph, and leaving the Region of Peel altogether. However, recently the concern has been from Caledon being forced into a decision by Brampton and Mississauga over development. At a recent Regional Council meeting the Caledon representatives walked out of the room.

A similar discussion is occurring in Niagara, which has to deal with many more municipalities and a much greater disparity between urban and rural areas. 

As Marshall points out, and is echoed by Ashley Csanady in the National Post, the real consequence of amalgamation has been a more equal share of services across larger municipalities. Marshall cites the example of libraries which have much improved across the entire city since amalgamation.

Csanady argues that proponents of de-amalgamation would be wise to look at what has happened in Montreal where partial de-amalgamation has resulted in convoluted governing structures. In addition a regional government would likely still have to be in place unless, in the example of Peel, Mississauga becomes completely independent.

I think of myself as an urban progressive. I can share the frustration of urban/downtown representatives forced to accept half a loaf, or no loaf at all, because of political compromise with their suburban or rural colleagues. At heart I think the more locally one can make political decisions the better off everyone is. For Torontonians I can imagine if Peel was amalgamated and city governments done away with I would not be happy. Toronto and Canadian cities are somewhat strange on the international stage. London, England is much larger than Toronto, but it has independent boroughs under a regional council. Seoul, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin, among many others, each have a model much more like old Metro Toronto, a regional government (sometimes province/state-like in powers) and districts with independent elected authorities. As Toronto grows ever larger I think the centralized, unitary government it has will become more and more unwieldy. It would likely be beneficial not just for governance reasons, but civic engagement to devolve power more locally, shrink the size of wards and the cost of elections and better represent the diversity of individual neighbourhoods. Rather than undoing amalgamation I would much rather see our governments talk about devolving power back to the more local level.

The truth of the matter is the local politics is often as fiery as national politics and for reasons that are harder to ascertain why. This likely isn't a matter of the "best" system but different systems with both worse and better outcomes. Toronto can overcome the differences between urban and suburban, and all localities can overcome their internal conflicts given sufficient compromise and leadership.

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