More power for municipalities not necessarily good for citizens

First published: January 28, 2007

Municipal politicians are rubbing their hands with glee as they start off the New Year with a host of newly appointed powers that will undoubtedly make their jobs much easier. But, it may not be sunshine and roses for citizens.

The provincial government and Northumberland County municipal leaders are selling the changes, which came into effect Jan. 1, to the public as a good thing. Previously, municipalities often complained it was difficult to run to the various provincial ministries every time it wanted to get something done. The larger ones, particularly Toronto, found it cumbersome. So, when the province agreed to devolve some of the decision-making powers, it was welcome news.

For citizens, the changes could mean big things, but only if local politicians are sincerely interested in implementing them in a democratic way. If not, these new powers could create far more trouble for businesses and residents.

One example is the ability of councils to extend shopping and bar hours, letting retailers be open longer and bars serve later. Sounds good on many levels. For restaurants owners in the summer, councils could let them remain open for tourists and special holidays, like Canada Day, for celebration. Retailers could keep open even later for last minute shoppers at Christmas time. Previously, this was controlled by provincial legislation.

But, what about storeowners who don’t want to stay open or can’t afford the staff? And, what does it mean for employees, who many not get compensated for the additional hours or have to work later shifts rather than being home with their families. Will there be additional noise at night in the summer? And, how will that affect nearby neighbourhoods? Will it mean more problems for police because people drink later and become more rowdy when they leave? Will the downtown be force to stay open late like big box malls? Or, will they need to follow mandated times?

There is also the issue of competition. Will stores be forced to stay open longer because neighbouring municipalities will be open longer? There may be no choice, if local businesses hope to survive.

These are not insurmountable problems. Not by a long shot. But, it will demand a lot of negotiation between all parties. Sunday shopping was a huge issue at one time, but eventually, stores were allowed to remain open. Soon, local councils will get to decide if stores can remain open on Easter or Christmas Day or close for Ramadan or Chinese New Year. With the broadening cultural background of businesspeople in our community, councils may face requests like this in the future from those who do not celebrate Christian holidays.

But, this is only one small aspect of the huge array of changes. Councils can now set bylaws for public safety, create more local boards, set fines for bylaw offenses, set rules for the business improvement areas, among others.

Another area of concern is the ability of municipalities to now offer financial incentives for developers. This could be one that will hurt smaller municipalities like those in Northumberland. Companies looking for locations for new plants or to expand operations will now force politicians into bidding wars, all done at taxpayers expense. Rather than paying for new infrastructure or contributing to reserve funds for parks and other necessities, taxpayers will end up losers as the each municipality offers goodies like cheaper land, roads, sewers, hydro and tax breaks. This can only lead to higher residential taxes.

None of this bodes well. Sadly, These changes were not raised during the recent municipal elections when candidates could have addressed them with clear policies, allowing voters to choose. Instead, we are now stuck with the current councils and hope for the best.

One area the province did address was making local councils more accountable. Municipal councils and local boards are now required to give public notice of upcoming meetings. Minutes must be recorded at all meetings, including closed sessions. Municipalities can appoint a person to investigate and provide a report when it is suspected that these requirements have not been fulfilled. Politicians can redefine the role and responsibilities of the mayors and council members. It is also possible to appoint an auditor general and ombudsman.

This could be the greatest victory of all for citizens. If councils move swiftly to undertake the appointment of an auditor and ombudsman – say at the county level to supervise all regional and council affairs – it could be cost effective and provide an excellent level of oversight. Considering the recent fiasco within the county finance office and Cobourg’s embarrassing delay in completing audited reports, this is a positive step if done immediately.

They key will be the openness of councils to public dialogue and decision-making, rather than the traditional dictatorial nature of the past. We already have witnessed the old attitudes. Port Hope Councillor Jeff Lees wasted no time after the new council was in power in December to attack citizens who regularly appear before council. Thankfully, Mayor Linda Thompson has clearly said she is open to public debate.

Local politicians need to heed the words given to the fictional comic book hero Spiderman, from his Uncle Ben: With great powers comes great responsibility. We anxiously wait to see how politician use these enhanced legislative tools.

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