Mc'Guinty's legacy for municipal government

First published: April 08, 2006

Premier Dalton McGuinty did a good job imitating Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader, in a recent speech to municipal leaders at the Rural Ontario Municipalities Association and The Ontario Good Roads Association conference in Toronto two weeks ago.

Municipal politicians drew a huge sigh of relief when McGuinty came to power after two terms of Mike Harris’ Tory rule, with its painful downloading and funding cuts, combined with the massive restructuring. Here was this fresh face holding all sort of promise he was the Chosen One, who would end the bitter war between the province and municipalities. But just like the character from the famous Star Wars epic, fear, false love and misguided counsel turned the potential dream into a real nightmare.

We all know the speech was meant to announce a new deal for covering land ambulance costs. Now, it will be equally split half and half between the province and local municipalities. This is really is not a big deal. At one time, the province paid all the costs, for ambulance service, but, under Harris, it got downloaded. If he really wanted to help, the province would go back to full funding.

It is these unspoken or unrecognized aspects of the McGuinty agenda, as outlined in the speech that are most disturbing.

McGuinty goes on to announce a four-year term for municipal politicians and school board trustees. This may be a good idea, depending on one’s perspective.

One need only look at the closing of Port Hope public schools to realize how much more damage could be done by an uncaring bureaucratic system driven to dismantle a community rather than build one. Good people will be naturally re-elected after three years.

Besides, rather than extending the life of some of these politicians, maybe the number of terms should be limited. A councillors and trustee should be limited to two consecutive three-year terms, with a one term break and then allow them to come back. This would end situations where incumbents begin to think it is their natural right to govern. Again. Good people would be welcomed back after a break. Limiting the number of terms would provide a turnover of new people. It would end the tyranny in some areas and prevent those who make a career of municipal politics. It would give those who have aspiration a fairer opportunity for success.

Finally, McGuinty outlined his Rural Plan, a strategy meant to revitalize local economies, retain business, develop products for export and make communities attractive to investors. He is also forming a tripartite commission made up of municipal, provincial and federal politicians to investigate how the three levels of government can work more closely together.

At this point, Northumberland residents should be applauding. But, let’s look at what is really happening.

Instead of strengthening municipalities or empowering citizens, McGuinty is taking a strategy that is gutting local authority.

Through Local Health Integration Networks, residents of Northumberland will need to travel to major urban centres like Peterborough, Kingston or Toronto for major services rather than being served by our own Northumberland Hills Hospital. Just look at how the last round of funding announcements for critical beds was given out to these regional centres and little, if nothing, to local hospitals.

In the same vein, Education Minister Gerald Kennedy announced last week sweeping changes to the system, once again centralizing decision-making of local school boards by consolidating them at Queen’s Park. The plan calls for more power to set policy agenda by the province and less by parents. If it is not bad enough for school councils and parents now (just look at those fighting the closing of schools in Port Hope), imagine what will happen if the province makes even more choices and sets more policies in stone. There will be nowhere for parents to seek arbitration when a decision hurts a community.

And instead of boosting our agriculture-based economy, farmers are left flapping in the wind with unstable, under-funded programs, which are either driving them into bankruptcy or making their lives harder. Since agriculture makes up the central pillar of the local economy, McGuinty’s policies are meager. Even the announcement of the new ethanol plant cannot guarantee local farmers income. Many farmers fear the plant will buy cheaper U.S. corn, if they do not get an exclusive agreement to buy local.

Then, there is the downloading of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement Plan. Municipal leaders predict it will mean more costs for property taxpayers to cover supplementary agreements with emergency service workers like police, fire and paramedics.

In addition, there is the reform proposed to the Ontario Municipal Board, a body that handles disputes over local planning matters. While developers and municipal leaders are rejoicing at the possible removal of red tape, it is very bad news for anyone who tries to oppose development in a community. Municipal councils will be given more powers to make local decisions. The idea is to put planning approvals back in local hands.

On the surface that sounds like a great scheme, but ask anyone who has tried to fight a developer’s plans what it is really like, such as the Valley Voices, who have tried to stop a gravel pit; or those who are trying to stop development north of Highway 401 in Port Hope; or those who fought to save Molly Baker Lane in Cobourg. Heck, ask any retailer how much they appreciate plans to build more box stores on Strathy Road as Home Depot, Loblaws and Wal-Mart crush the small, main street businesses in the entire region. Politicians are too hungry for assessment and potential tax revenue to act on behalf of a community. They are driven to keep growing or face massive property tax increases caused by a serious lack of provincial funding that will almost certainly mean political suicide.

And so we see the real McGuinty. And like the cute, innocent boy in the Star Wars movie, over time we see his dark side. We cannot believe the rhetoric he spouts; rather, we must judge him by his actions.

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