Saving jobs should not hurt democratic rights

First published: March 13, 2009

The opening of the spring session of the Ontario legislature Tuesday marks a critical juncture for municipalities and a test of leadership for local politicians.

The economy of the environment are expected to dominate the agenda over the next few months as Premier Dalton McGuinty faces one of the greatest challenges of his political career. With more than 71,000 job lost last month alone, the provincial economy is crumbling. And, it is well known that Finance Minister Dwight Duncan is preparing a budget based on a multi-billion deficit meant to stimulate the economy.

However, part of McGuinty’s plans is to introduce new legislation that will limit the rights of individuals, resident’s associations and local councils to object to wind/solar farms and other “green” projects. The goal is to obliterate red tape and local NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard).

Both these ideas are noble in their intent, but it is also very problematic.

Many of the dollars allotted for economic stimulus will go to infrastructure project like rebuilding crumbling roads, sewers, bridges and buildings. This is a well-recognized form of assistance, since it has both long and short-term benefits. The lasting impact of new roads and sewers means better services for residents and industry. New roads can improve transportation; make businesses more efficient and effective and so forth. In the short-term, it creates jobs. These people go and spend the money they earn, stimulating other aspects of the economy. So, it is not only construction workers and trades people who are the beneficiaries, but also we all get a boost.

However, Cobourg blogger Ben Burd makes a good point in a recent entry. What about the future impact of these entire projects? If it is merely upgrading existing roads, sewers or bridges, the municipalities will not feel the fallout. But, what if these are funds for new roads or extensions of sewers into new areas or widening bridges. And, what if the money is spent on new buildings or expansions of existing buildings or arenas etc. This kind of program will mean additional costs on local taxpayers, Burd argues.

It is a great point. Think about the recent controversy over the downtown skating rink and fountain. It is turned out to be a huge success by any standard. However, critics are right to maintain concerns about ongoing costs for maintenance, repairs, staffing and so on. The province threw money at the project and then walks away, leaving property taxpayers holding the bag.

The same will hold true for the infrastructure programs. As the money flows through to municipal governments, who is going to calculate the future costs. Taxpayers must demand these figures be released as part of any reports so councillors can make sound judgments.

But, it is the second agenda of this spring session that is equally disturbing.

Balancing the rights of people to oppose government is a tricky business. Far too often in local council chambers across Northumberland, there are blatant examples of citizens’ rights being crushed by municipal leaders. The list of abuses is long. Still, there are those who will argue opponents, who have little or no legitimate reason for opposing, equally abuse the system.

This is a slippery slope for democracy. When such a fundamental right as opposing government is removed, then we are in trouble. Sure, there are always the extreme examples of gadflies who refused to back down despite overwhelming evidence. Yet, if we silence those critics, what happens to the myriad of legitimate concerns others express.

Look at the solar panel project being proposed by Omniwatt in Hamilton Township. There is no doubt the developer and Northumberland County economic development officials are gushing with enthusiasm, as they effuse about the environment, investment, jobs and research opportunities.

Still, the township, residents, neighbours and other groups were nowhere to be found at the staged press conference. No surprise. However, it was clear the agenda is to push this forward quickly and with little opposition. It can only be hoped that the upcoming public meeting will not be the only one, giving time for careful consideration.

This does not mean there should be opposition or that this project should be paralyzed. Still, the democratic rights of citizens and local governments to be fair to all in essential, including the right of the developer not to be hamstrung.

This kind of legislation is a lazy response to a poor system. Instead of removing people’s rights, it should be the goal of the government to create fair, accessible, open, transparent and reasonable processes. However, tackling these kinds of tough situations is not the hallmark of the provincial government. Instead, this environment assessment process, the Ontario Municipal Board and MPAC (Municipal Property Assessment Corporation) are allowed to run in the face of obvious problems.

This past weekend Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won a constitutional amendment to end term limits because he said it prevented him from solving the country’s problems. Premier McGuinty is couching his plans in the context of an overwhelming economic crisis that only he and his government can solve. It seems democratic rights go out the window in times of crisis.

The premier needs to trend carefully and Northumberland County residents need to make it clear to MPP Lou Rinaldi that whatever steps are going to be taken during this upcoming session, citizens want the benefits of their proposals, but not without careful consideration for the fiscal and democratic impact.

Meanwhile local leaders need to step up with a set of plans ready to go that can take advantage of the stimulus money with replacement projects that will not leave a punishing financial legacy and allow time for careful debate about those which will mean greater future costs.

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