To the York Region Administrative HQ to hear the big debate on whether the Chair should be (a) directly elected by the people or (b) indirectly by Council Members with all the nods, winks and nudges that that entails. There is also a related and overlapping debate on whether York Region should embark on a review of its governance.

But first up there is a deputation from the City of Markham. Ward 4 councillor, Karen Rea, is in favour of direct election. People should judge the candidates on a multiplicity of measures. What is their vision for the Region? Are they capable of doing the job? Are they honest and trustworthy? She says that where municipalities have taken a position on the issue of direct election their Mayors should vote in line here at the Region. She says councils in Markham, Aurora, Newmarket and East Gwillimbury all voted in favour of a directly elected Regional Chair but their Mayors, as we shall soon see, will vote against.

One of them, Markham’s silver-tongued Mayor, Frank Scarpitti, the highest paid Mayor in Ontario in 2014 on a salary of $230,234 (including taxable benefits), looks on impassively as Rea makes her points. He will not forget what she said today.

Stunned and Electrified

Now York Region’s appointed Chair, the jovial Wayne Emmerson, electrifies the meeting by telling us the Region learned unofficially last night that Bill 42 (which mandates the direct election of the Chair of York Region) would be going into Committee at Queen’s Park on Wednesday 24 February 2016 and Wednesday 2 March 2016 and the committee clerk at Queen’s Park had to be informed of any requests for deputations by 5pm tomorrow (Friday 19 February).

I hear howls of outrage. The Region’s Chief Administrative Officer, Bruce Macgregor, tells us the Region’s Director of Communications discovered this little nugget on Canada Newswire last night. There has been no official communication from the Province. But I suppose that is because the Bill has nothing to do with the Government. It is a Private Member’s Bill promoted by Chris Ballard and individual MPPs will choose either to support it or not as takes their fancy.

“Structured on a go-forward basis”

Now we turn our attention to another report on the agenda that lies alongside the one on the Regional Chair. Newmarket’s Tony Van Bynen called for a review of regional governance, believing it impossible to change the method of electing the Chair without looking at all the other bits and pieces of the machinery of government. He tells us in his weird bank manager prose it is important to look at all the options and “how we should be structured on a go forward basis”.

Markham’s Frank Scarpitti confesses he doesn’t know why we are doing this. Our model here at the Region works quite well. Why is the Province just singling out York Region? I am tempted to shout out: "It is a Private Member’s Bill. Why not ask Chris Ballard!”

Scarpitti tells us that if it ain’t broke why try to fix it?

His face creases into his trademark smile as he aims to wound. “These discussions (about electing the Chair) are good for (raising) the political profile of people.” He says we should instead be talking about the many positive things the Region has done. He tells us we are the envy of the Province and, indeed, Canada. South of the border people are filled with awe when they see what is happening inYork Region. Never one for understatement, Scarpitti tells us:

“At the end of the day there is no perfect system… but what we have is 80%-90% perfect.”

“We are perfect”

Now the serious love-in begins with Wayne Emmerson telling his electorate (ie those sitting around the horseshoe table)

 “this municipality has worked really well together”.

That said, he thinks a governance review could be useful. He is bending over backwards to appear reasonable. He hears direct election in Waterloo seems to work.

Markham’s Jack Heath, famous for reading and digesting all his committee papers and then regurgitating them at length, agrees with Scarpitti. The current system doesn’t need fixing. 

Aurora’s Mayor Geoffrey Dawe gushes on about collegiality and how everyone is really nice to him. He has to rely on that goodwill if he is absent and needs a colleague to speak on his behalf. He is the sole representative of Aurora. He hopes the review will look at “alternate representation” so someone else from Aurora can step into his shoes if he is away.

King’s Steve Pellegrini agrees the Region is 80%-90% perfect and wonders why the review of governance is necessary. “We get along extremely well.”

East Gwillimbury’s sole representative, Mayor Virginia Hackson, unsurprisingly agrees with Dawe about alternates and says the study should go ahead. She talks about collegiality which morphs into congeniality. Either way, she’s a happy Mayor.

Georgina’s Mayor Margaret Quirk also wants the review to take a look at alternates. She wonders aloud why Georgina has two reps before reminding us that her colleague, Danny Wheeler, has been off sick for three months. Had he been the sole rep Georgina’s voice would not have been heard.

Cottage Country bonus representation

There are gales of laughter when we are told Georgina gets two representatives because the population of cottage country doubles in the summer. It was decided in the old days this was the right thing to do.

Now Newmarket Regional Councillor, John Taylor, makes the first in a series of spirited interventions. He supports the governance review and the accompanying analysis. He also supports direct election of the Chair and it is time to look at things holistically.

Former MP and Mayor of Vaughan, Maurizio Bevilacqua, doesn’t see a downside to the review. He wants a review of governance every three or four years. It is that important. Perhaps he has been seared by the Di Biase scandal. He says he wants greater representation for Vaughan despite the widely held view that four members from Vaughan equal five members from Markham. This unleashes more hoots of laughter.

Vaughan’s Gino Rosati punctures the balloon. The review is a futile exercise. He says there are more important things to spend their time on.

Bruce Macgregor says they have a couple of academics on board to help staff with the review. But, curiously, he wonders what problems they are trying to solve.

Made in York

Emmerson says Chris Ballard wants a “Made in York” solution so he wants the Region to put together a menu of its own making and hand it over to Queen’s Park.

The usually reactive Van Bynen has been taking an initiative. He says he has been in touch with the Ministry of Housing and Municipal Affairs and something on municipal governance will be coming forward within the year! That kind of imprecision is worse than useless. He complains, with some justification, the Region has been left flat-footed with no time to respond to Bill 42.

Markham’s Frank Scarpitti says Van Bynen is sincere in his comments but the reality is the Province is gonna do what it is gonna do. Scarpitti is against the governance review, believing it will soak up valuable time, and deflates expectations of the academics, saying dismissively:

 “We can get great professors who have written books but have they sat around a Council table?”

Emmerson puts the governance review to the vote with only Scarpitti against.

“I am quiet and like to listen”

Now we are moving on to the related debate on the election of the Regional Chair with the motion being moved by one of Markham’s four Regional Councillors, Joe Li. With York Region responsible for raising and spending billions of dollars he says it is time for accountability and transparency.  The motion is seconded in a strange lukewarm and listless way by Whitchurch-Stouffville’s  Mayor, Justin Altmann, the man who tells us

“I am quite quiet and like to listen”.

He says, almost apologetically, it is essentially a matter for the Province.

Scarpitti immediately asks him if he is withdrawing his support for the motion.

No, says Altmann, quietly.

Now Markham’s Jim Jones is telling us we need a directly elected Chair. So too does Markham’s Nirmala Armstrong though she is not pleased with the way the Province has handled things.

Where power really lies

Vaughan’s Gino Rosatti wants the Province to make the decision on electing the Chair.

“The real power here lies with Mr Macgregor! And he is not elected!”

There is much chuckling. Everyone realizes the power of the bureaucracy, while often camouflaged, is immense.

Markham’s Jack Heath is not in favour of direct election. People owe their allegiance to their local municipality and not to the regional tier. And where are people going to find over $600,000 to contest an election across the region. From developers?

Richmond Hill Mayor, David Barrow, is also against direct election. He again misunderstands that Bill 42 is a Private Member’s Bill. “If the Province is looking for change let the Province make the change.” And any change should apply Province-wide. Barrow says the Chair should have a municipal background. It seems to me the candidates will, in large part, be self selecting. Are we going to see someone run for Regional Chair with no previous municipal experience? Perhaps but unlikely.

More tellingly, Barrow believes the Chair should wield some meaty executive powers. This needs to be explored further.

Popularity v Experience

Richmond Hill’s Vito Spatafora is indignant that York Region is being singled out. He says the Chair should have the experience to deal with big regional issues. “That’s quite a juggling act. You don’t want someone (getting elected) on a popularity vote.”

Turning to Emmerson, he gushes:

“The Chair is there to guide and lead us along. To say we are not transparent is insulting.”

King’s Pellegrini is also against direct election. Why are they targeting just one Region? (Duh! Because it’s Ballard’s Private Member’s Bill and it only applies to York Region.)

East Gwillimbury’s Virginia Hackson says councils are split on the issue. Her council voted for direct election. She voted against and she will again today.

Love is in the air

Mayor Margaret Quirk tells us that Georgina didn’t take a position on Bill 42. But looking at Emmerson she confesses:

“I don’t know if direct election can get us a better candidate than what we have now.”

Now Newmarket’s Van Bynen is telling us he supports democracy, but not right now. He was the sole vote at Newmarket Council against direct election but that won’t stop him voting against direct election today. Parroting the speech he gave at Mulock Drive he says direct election would “change the dynamics of the Regional Council”. He wants a governance review first. It’s putting the cart before the horse. And any change should be applied Province wide.

Maurizio Bevilacqua now applies the soothing balm for which he is famous. Everyone presents a very valuable perspective. Wayne Emmerson has given “stellar leadership”. But if there are changes these should be uniform across the Province.

Big Money

On the vexatious question of raising huge sums of money to contest elections across the Region, he wants to turn the taps off at source. He doesn’t take money from developers or from unions. He suggests there is a way of keeping big money out of municipal politics.

Markham’s Nirmala Armstrong will be supporting direct election. We all saw the votes being cast for Wayne Emmerson but the process for electing the chair was not transparent. Who knows what deals or trade-offs she was thinking of?

Taylor wants to send a message to the Province. Direct election of the Chair offers an exciting opportunity to engage with people and get a conversation going. He says the Region has struggled to catch the eyes and get the ears of residents. Elections will bring energy to regional government.

Aurora’s Geoffrey Dawe was in a minority of one on his Council (8-1) and nothing he has heard since has changed his mind. He will be voting against today.

Vaughan’s Gino Rosatti wanders all over the shop, musing about the nature of democracy and opining on the relative merits of Parliamentary and Presidential systems. All that, I think, is for another day.

Now it is time for Emmerson to wind up. Like a controlled explosion, he vents in a muffled way, taking exception to statements that suggest there is not enough accountability or transparency at York Region. (Fair enough. But why not live stream Council and Committee of the Whole meetings? Having an audio feed is simply absurd. It's not the 1950s.)

We have come full circle and it is time to vote. In favour of direct election 5. Against 14.

In favour: Joe Li (Markham), John Taylor (Newmarket), Justin Altmann (Whitchurch-Stouffville), Nirmala Armstrong (Markham) and Jim Jones (Markham).

Against: Steve Pellegrini (King), Margaret Quirk (Georgina), Gino Rosatti (Vaughan), Frank Scarpitti (Markham), Vito Spatafora (Richmond Hill), Tony Van Bynen (Newmarket), David Barrow (Richmond Hill), Maurizio Bevilacqua (Vaughan), Geoffrey Dawe (Aurora), Michael Di Biase (Vaughan), Mario Ferri (Vaughan), Virginia Hackson (East Gwillimbury), Jack Heath (Markham), Brenda Hogg (Richmond Hill).

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