Failure of county government at heart of policing debate

First published: September 04, 2008

There are times when political battles are not what they seem. Take the latest war over countywide policing as an example. Instead of policing, it is about the failure of county government to work properly.

As emotions run high and the votes roll in, it would appear the proposal is lying on its deathbed. Cobourg, Hamilton Township and Brighton have rejected it. Trent Hills is the only one to support it. Alnwick-Haldimand will discuss it July 3 and Cramahe Township won’t meet until mid-July to make its decision. Port Hope will take its vote Tuesday.

To be approved, the proposals need to meet a triple majority test. This means the majority of all votes of Northumberland County council must be in favour and the majority of lower tier municipalities must be in favour, meaning four out of seven. And, the total number of electors in the lower-tier municipalities that passed the first two tests must form a majority of all electors (50 per cent plus one) in Northumberland County. So, doing the math shows the combined number of electors for Hamilton, Cobourg and Brighton total approximately 29,000 or 48.5 per cent. It will take only one other municipality to kills this.

The uploading of services from local to county has a long history ripe with bitterness and feuding often between towns and townships, urban and rural. While amalgamations across the county did finally occur in 2001, it was a long hard road. Without immense pressure from the province, it would never have happened.

So, what made anyone think this time around was going to be any different? Uploading of services in Northumberland County happens only under the greatest duress and generally local governments ensure the county never gets full control. It took nearly 25 years to get a countywide waste management program in place. (And, I bet if you talk to the right people, you will still hear grumbling.)

Even non-county services are torpedoed. Plans to merge the Northumberland Children’s Aid Society with Peterborough’s services were killed in 2002. A proposal to amalgamate the local health unit with Peterborough was met with the same chagrin.

So maybe countywide policing was more a ploy than a plan. Municipal leaders played taxpayers because they were hungry to get control over spending and it was a win-win scenario, especially for Brighton and Cobourg, along with giving Port Hope a distraction it needed to avoid a joint service.

Brighton Mayor Christine Herrington first introduced the notion of countywide policing in 2004 when her own OPP costs skyrocketed somewhere between 30 to 50 per cent. It also made sense for Cobourg Mayor Peter Delanty, who was facing a three-ring circus within his police force. In 2004, Hamilton Township was getting ready to bail out on the Cobourg force to go with the OPP. Cobourg Police Association President Sergeant Stan Sokay was blasting council for its lack of attention to the contract, which was nearly a year beyond its expiration. Constable Chris Garrett was murdered in May of that year. Negotiations with Port Hope for an amalgamated force were stalled. And, to add to all of this, officers Sean Nelles and Brent Allison were charged in November, resulting in an expensive, prolonged fight to get rid of Nelles.

The countywide service would also provide an excellent distraction for Port Hope. Former Cobourg Chief Gary Clement was pumping along like a steam engine with plans to create a joint force between the two municipalities. But, the talks would never gel. In fact, it became bitter. In October 2005, Police Board Chair Jeff Lees, who was a councillor at the time, would go on CHUC radio denouncing Clement as an empire builder. The talks never fully got back on track.

Herrington was successful. The OPP reduced it costs within the year and have controlled spending since then. Cobourg’s transformation was not as smooth. It would take a prolonged process to finally settle the Nelles case. Clement would go through a version of Dante’s Inferno as he walked through the seven rings of hell before he left. Now, Acting Chief Paul Sweet has brought spending under control and there is a lot less public embarrassment. So, Delanty got what he wanted. But, as blogger Ben Burd points out this week in The Burd Report, it also turns out he and Deputy Mayor Gil Brocanier were counting on the saving to fund a new recreation complex, including a senior’s centre, as demonstrated by the debate at Monday’s council meeting.

Obviously, there were many hidden agendas.

As for Port Hope, Chief Ron Hoath called it dead on in 2006, saying there is no support for countywide policing. But, he also said all the uncertainty hurt morale on the force. No doubt the frontline officer in Cobourg feel the same.

The beautiful part of this scheme is neither Herrington nor Delanty could lose. If a county police force were formed, the OPP would save each municipality money, at least on paper. And, if it failed, the local forces would toe the line.

So, politically, it worked.

But what does this say about the county level of government? Taxpayers are funding a level of government that is truly questionable.

County government is a dog’s breakfast. It cannot legitimately take claim to too much. It looks after waste management, social services, ambulances, and county housing on its own. While it repairs county roads, local municipalities still look after a majority of roads. It has an economic development, but some municipalities have their own programs. Tourism is duplicated. Now, Herrington is hoping to get a planning office at the county level, since Northumberland is one of two counties in Ontario without a planning department. But, these ideas were debated in the past without being realized.

It is the target for downloading from the provincial government, while lower-tier municipalities use it to buffer crippling costs, as a way to avoid handling costs that would drive taxes through the roof or make certain services unfeasible. It is a nebulous level of government, at best.

Northumberland County government has once again proven it is the punching bag for the rest of the county with little power, even less control and a bane for taxpayers. Maybe the debate we should be having is not about policing, but about governance. Taxpayers don’t likes being the patsy.

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