WHO REALLY OWNS CITY HALL 6: Municipal boundaries
The purpose of local government, as defined in the Municipal Act, sec. 3(a), is to provide “good government for its community.” The Act does not define what a community is, and there are many ways to define a community. For the purpose of local government, a community can be defined as “a body of people living in the same area and sharing common values.” A municipality is the organization established to govern such a community. In my last column we explored the idea of electing municipal councils on the basis of wards as one avenue by which values unique to neighbourhoods within a municipality may be more effectively represented on council.
Ward representation may effectively balance representation of neighbourhoods on a municipal council provided that the unique values of a neighbourhood are not in conflict with those of other neighbourhoods. It is quite possible that the interests of one neighbourhood, say Porter Creek or Riverdale, could be more effectively represented in council debates and decisions if these neighbourhoods were guaranteed representation on council under a ward system. A ward system may improve representation of a neighbourhood which believes that its values are not given due consideration on council, but that depends on the cause of the dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction may arise from a long-standing inability of candidates from a neighbourhood to be elected. It may be difficult to tie dissatisfaction of this kind to a specific decision. Discontent may be of a general nature, a feeling of being taken for granted, and ward representation could alleviate that problem. However, if residents of a neighbourhood feel that council consistently ignores their concerns in matters such as zoning or municipal services, ward representation may not be a remedy as the ward’s councillor or councillors could be consistently outvoted on the very decisions ward representation was meant to modify. To deal with problems of this kind, ward councillors would have to be given limited veto powers on decisions which have a unique impact on their wards. While lending substance, a ward veto could also create opportunities for political blackmail, leading to undesirable consequences, and defeating the very purpose of the Municipal Act’s principle of good government. With or without veto, ward representation is not a panacea.
A more effective resolution to intra-municipal conflict caused by a neighbourhood’s chronic under- or misrepresentation on council, real or perceived, may be provided by expanding the Municipal Act’s provisions for the formation, dissolution, or alteration of municipal boundaries (sec. 17-24). When dissatisfactions are long-standing and of a deep and chronic nature, particularly when linked to land use and servicing decisions, the interests of the broader community may be better served by severing a neighbourhood from an existing municipality to form a new municipality rather than by implementing representation by ward. The option of splitting a municipality may be easily dismissed, but it merits thoughtful consideration. The Municipal Act offers broad opportunities for inter-jurisdictional and inter-municipal cooperation and coordination (sec. 27). It does not take much imagination to see Porter Creek or Riverdale as municipalities in their own right. Where joint ventures serve the interests of both parties, for example water or sewage treatment, adjacent municipalities can cooperate to provide a cost efficient service, subject to negotiated inter-municipal or regional agreements, from which both parties may benefit.
Some may dismiss out of hand a proposal to carve a new municipality out of an existing one on the grounds that doing so would lead to duplications and an increase in the cost of administration. Generalizations of that kind may not stand up to closer examination. Bigger government is not better government, neither in terms of efficiency nor in terms of effectiveness. The proponents of the 1998 amalgamation of Toronto’s six area municipality into what is today the City of Toronto were convinced that the cost of amalgamation would be recovered by annual savings within two years, and that taxpayers would thereafter benefit from ongoing savings. Within less than a decade these projections proved to be wrong as the anticipated savings were never realized and the number of employees of the consolidated municipality of Toronto grew by thousands beyond the combined number of employees of the six municipalities prior to their amalgamation. (For more information on the subject see Andrew Sancton, Merger Mania: The Assault on Local Government, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000).
Vancouverprovides an excellent Canadian example of adjacent municipal jurisdictions providing coordinated, efficient, effective, accountable and responsible government to their residents. Greater Vancouver includes 21 municipalities ranging in population from more than 600,000 (City of Vancouver) to less than 1,000 (Village of Belcarra). Many services are provided jointly to some or all of them by the Greater Vancouver Water District, the Greater Vancouver Sewage and Drainage District, the Greater Vancouver Regional District and similar service-specific umbrella organizations. However, in matters of sensitive or uniquely local concern, e.g., land use, every municipality in Greater Vancouver maintains its independence. The recent decision by the City of Surrey to reject a $100 million casino complex proposal is an excellent example. Surrey Council defeated the project by the narrowest of margins, a 5-4 vote. We can only speculate what the decision on this proposal would have been if Greater Vancouver municipalities had been amalgamated, Toronto-style, into a single municipality.
Would the residents of Surrey opposed to the casino project have been able to convince the majority of an amalgamated Vancouver council to turn the proposal down when that council is responsible not only to Surrey residents, but to all communities in Greater Vancouver? Consider the lobbying power of all those communities who may benefit from such investment without being exposed to the immediate impact of a casino in their neighbourhood. Independent municipal status of the Greater Vancouver communities allows for inter-municipal cooperation. Municipalities working together for mutual benefit, while respecting their independence where doing so serves each community’s interests. The Vancouver situation enables more efficient and more effective local government, and above all more accountable municipal government than does Toronto’s amalgamation which was imposed by the provincial government despite overwhelming opposition to the proposal in a 1997 referendum.
The only Yukon municipality in which a municipal split may be feasible is the City of Whitehorse. Whitehorse is the Yukon’s largest municipality by far. It stands apart from all other Yukon municipalities in respect to all local government services. I am not suggesting that the City of Whitehorse should be split. I am suggesting that the first sentence in Municipal Act s. 17(1) — “A proposal to form, dissolve, or alter the boundary of a municipality…” — be expanded to provide for the splitting of a neighbourhood from an existing municipality to form a new municipality. The idea of splitting a governing structure to create a new one is an idea with which Yukoners are quite familiar. The Northwest Territories was established as a distinct territory under federal jurisdiction in 1870. In the decades that followed its land mass was repeatedly reduced to create the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and to enlarge the province of Ontario. Yukon and Nunavut were carved out of the Northwest Territories and established as distinct territories under federal authority. More recently new governing structures were established in the Yukon under the terms of the 1990 Umbrella Final Agreement. These new governments did not emerge from a vacuum. The powers and authorities assigned to First Nations under that agreement were carved out and taken, split, from existing government jurisdictions to create new governments designed to be responsive and accountable to communities defined by the affected citizens.
Enabling a neighbourhood, a community, to break away from an existing municipality to form a new municipality is consistent with the Municipal Act’s principle of municipal governments being “…responsible and accountable to the citizens they serve…” As suggested in a previous column, elections assign responsibility, they do not foster accountability. Accountability is fostered by measures such as the Act’s provision for public votes (referendums). The democratic value of laws permitting referendums or the splitting of a municipality is not in the referendum or municipal splitting per se, it is in citizens having the power to act and make decisions on issues of major concern to citizens. Their democratic value is in the reminder to elected councils that “If you don’t listen, if you don’t pay attention, we have an option.”
Splitting a municipality would require an enormous amount of work, effort and resources on the part of those citizens dissatisfied with the status quo. It would have to involve all the steps and agencies involved in the creation of a new municipality, including the Minister and the Municipal Board. Difficult negotiations involving the petitioners, the municipality, the Minister and the Municipal Board would be required to resolve complex issues as in defining boundaries and the division of assets and liabilities. The final decision would have to be the responsibility of the residents of the proposed new municipality. It may be that, with all the facts on the table, they may decide to retain the status quo. Whatever the outcome, democracy would be the victor.
The subject of the next column will be the Official Community Plan.