Lack of leadership plagues list of municipal issues

First published:
July 17, 2001

The focus on African aid at the recent G8 summit in Alberta last month brought back thoughts of Mzuzu, Malawi, a city in the south-central region that received help from Cobourg from 1991 to 1999. In fact, it was three years ago this week the final exchange visit took place and the town announced the formal end to its partnership.

With the assistance of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Cobourg politicians and civil servants provided expertise and equipment to assist the struggling city in order to improve its municipal government. Various community groups also participated by sending over sewing machines, soccer equipment and other types of support. The program was heralded as a massive success for both Cobourg and Mzuzu.

Malawi is back in the news as one of several South African countries experiencing a massive food shortage. The World Food Program announced on July 1 it needs $500 million (US) over the next nine months to feed more than 10 million people in the area including Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. It is the worst shortage in a decade. Unlike previous food shortages in the 1991-92 crisis, a number of factors are involved including poor rains and floods, along with regional economic decline and government mismanagement.

Cobourg’s civil servants continue to provide support, said town clerk Rick Stinson in an interview Monday. Some water testing equipment and filters were sent within the last six months. St. Peter’s Anglican Church continues its partnership with St. Mark’s church in Mzuzu.

Still what is most unnerving is the silence at Cobourg council since the announcement of a critical food shortage that began in May. Once there was no more federal money to pay for the program, council decided to stop the exchange. Personal relationships continued between the various individuals. There is not even a peep from the current council as to sending aid during this current crisis. Thankfully, town staff has continued to do its share with a few resources. But the political will to be fully engaged with Mzuzu apparent during the period of full funding from the federal government is long gone.

This phenomenon in municipal government is like bread and seagulls. When a person show up on the beach with bread, there is a mass of gulls fighting over every scrap. The individual is the centre of attention because they have bread. But once the bread is gone, then the flock disappears.

It happens all the time. Look at the amalgamation deal between Port Hope and the former Hope Township. Without a $450,000 provincial grant from the Community Reinvestment Fund, council is sending municipal staff to investigate how the two sides can split. Fears of a seven per cent tax hike are brandished around like an evil voodoo doll.

The attention-grabbing headlines were more likely a strategy to gain the notice of the provincial government. But it does point to the bread and seagulls approach. Heaven forbid amalgamation was done because it is a strong held principle that better, more efficient government would result. If there were a true benefit, taxpayers would not complain about increases because they might know the overall benefit. But the motivation was not based on a belief in the long-term benefits to the community, but pressure from the province and money to sweeten the pot. Without them, nobody is really prepared to pay. (Notably provincial taxes come from the left pocket of taxpayers while municipal taxes come from the right).

There could not be any worse reason for doing anything. Upper tier funding should not be the carrot — or stick — to be used to get any community to move forward on initiatives.

And yet there are countless examples in municipal government. Waterfront development, Superbuild, nutrient management on farms and the list goes on endlessly. Decisions are often made using the bread and seagull approach rather than a principled approach. If ideas or programs are worth having then let municipal politicians find the money locally or, if the province is going to kick in (or pressure local governments), then let’s make sure the decisions are the right ones for us.

In the meantime, maybe Cobourg politicians could follow the example of Councillor Bill MacDonald and give their recent raises toward food for the people of Malawi. It could spearhead a movement to rekindle a relationship that was both valuable and important.

Port Hope politicians might rethink their position, too. This is yet another example of the long list of issues they cannot seem to resolve with any real leadership. Between AON and policing, one wonders if these people can even tackle anything remotely challenging.

Maybe taxpayers should start saving their bread crusts.

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