The Provincial Government is currently reviewing the operation of the Municipal Act and is inviting comments from all who are interested. York Region has produced a response which is truly feeble.

Tomorrow (8 October 2015) our regional councillors and Mayors will rubber stamp a steady-as-she-goes staff report which urges them not to rock the boat.

The Province’s consultation paper has a section on "local representation" in which it specifically raises the issue of council chairs such as York Region's Wayne Emmerson who are not directly elected by the people in an election at large. 

The consultation paper says: 

"For regional municipalities, some of the changes they may make include: changing the method for how the head of council (eg regional chair) is elected; changing the way in which members of the upper tier council are selected (for example, directly elected to the upper tier)”

This fundamental issue is left unaddressed in the Region’s recommended response. In defending the status quo the staff could have said a region wide election for chair would, for example,  cost candidates too much money (John Taylor has previously voiced concerns about this) or that indirect election has its merits having thrown up stars such as Wayne Emmerson and Bill Fisch before him.

Mayors such as Tony Van Bynen go on the regional council automatically by virtue of their position, trousering around $50,000 in the process. Over the past year I could count on the fingers of one hand the times Van Trappist has made a contribution to the debate. Maybe he is influential behind the scenes. But should this practice of placing mayors on the regional council by virtue of their office continue or should there be open elections for all regional council seats? Again, this is left unaddressed.

The provincial consultation paper has three broad themes: Theme 1 is accountability and transparency. York region has no code of conduct for members saying this would merely duplicate what is already in place in the lower tier municipalities.

Suspended without pay

So, take the case of regional councillor Michael Di Biase who, earlier this year, was suspended without pay for 90 days from Vaughan Council for improperly interfering in the council's tendering processes. Throughout this period of suspension in Vaughan, Di Biase presumably continued to get his pay from York Region. Is that OK?

On the broader issue of transparency, York region must have one of the worst records in Canada. Its committee of the whole meetings - where important business is transacted - are not broadcast. And council meetings are broadcast in sound only - straight out of the 1950s. Making meetings accessible is an issue everywhere.

Theme 2 is all about municipal fiscal sustainability. The staff recommend a lot of detailed financial stuff which seems fair enough to me. They want powers to invest in US dollar securities and such like. It is though unfortunate that more isn’t done to discourage people from keeping property empty for long periods of time. Taxation should encourage the efficient use of property.

New taxes

York Region staff also want powers to impose new taxes. I am not necessarily against this. Councils have got to get their cash from somewhere.

"Two direct taxes that could, in meeting growth plan targets, be of interest to the region would be the vehicle ownership tax and parking tax. A vehicle ownership tax could not only provide the Region with additional revenue, but it should also help to encourage use of the rapid transit system. As Regional Express Rail comes online and services such as park-and-ride become more prevalent, a parking tax could become a revenue source to help fund transit investments."

Theme 3 looks at responsive and flexible municipal government. I see the Regional staff want to clarify powers regulating transit providers. In 2001 the Region took over responsibility for transit from the local municipalities.

"One issue that proved challenging is that there was no clear guidance on the status of contracts entered into by the local municipalities in connection with their local transit services. There were over one hundred associated contracts including bus service providers, maintenance contracts and advertising contracts. Many of these contracts did not contemplate that the authority for transit services would be assumed by a different entity."

All in all, the response is disappointingly thin. We shall see tomorrow if our regional councillors and mayors amend the submission in any important way or if they are content to let regional staff do their thinking for them.

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