First published: August 26, 2004
Criticism by Toronto and other large municipalities in Ontario about the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) spells trouble for Northumberland County and its municipalities.
The big cities want the provincial and federal governments to deal directly with them when it comes to addressing concerns, in particular handing out money. But the provincial and federal governments want to deal with the association, which represents 445 communities.
A memo leaked late last week, protocols were set out in a draft agreement covering everything from how roads and sewers are financed through to housing initiatives.
Toronto Mayor David Miller barely drew a breath before lambasting the notion.
“The city of Toronto speaks for the needs of Toronto and not another organization,” he said in an interview in the Globe and Mail.
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley jumped on the bandwagon, calling AMO a toothless tiger and any negotiations would be a recipe for inaction.
“On behalf of municipalities AMO is a lapdog not a watchdog,” he said in an interview with the Globe and Mail.
It is a tough way to talk about a 104-year old organization founded in 1899 to help municipalities address common concerns. Today, AMO is a lobby working on inter-government relations, information gathering for municipalities and letting municipal politicians and staff know what is going on that would affect them.
It also operates a number of services, including research, bulk purchasing, training and online services for municipalities and staff.
It is no stranger to intergovernmental discussion and negotiations. However, it is not a well-known organization outside of municipal circles. And, it fails to take on government in bare-knuckle public brawls, instead opting for quite, backroom pressure.
Oakville Mayor Anne Mulvale, who is AMO’s president, responded to big city criticism by saying Toronto could circumvent the organization if it wants.
Premier Dalton McGuinty followed-up by signing the agreement with AMO Monday.
This is not good for anyone.
First, Toronto needs to be given special status, with funding to deal with its massively complex problems. With more than five million people and a major centre for immigrants, the population will only grow. There are also numerous infrastructure problems and service issues like the transit system. This is what Miller wants and he must get it before the entire city collapses after decades of underfunding.
By separating Toronto, the rest of the cities and smaller municipalities in Ontario must create a strong, vibrant lobby centralized under a single umbrella. Urban centres like Mississauga, Kingston and Ottawa, among others, cannot be allowed to form their own lobby. These cities do not have the same needs as Toronto despite any arguments to the contrary.
AMO is an existing organization, and while toothless, as Bradley would have the public believe, it does not have to be that way. A group is only as strong as its membership. The member municipalities cannot let AMO languish. It must move out of the shadows and into the public’s consciousness as an aggressive champion of municipal governments.
It will be important to have strong voices like those of the major urban centres to ensure the upper tiers of government do not ignore AMO and the needs of municipalities. There has to be co-operation between the larger and smaller municipalities.
The recent snub Northumberland received when it was left out of the Smart Growth study, an in-depth study measuring a host of factors regarding municipal needs for expansion over the future, illustrates what can happen when cities dominate the agenda.
Northumberland County is poise to accept many urban refugees over the next few years, putting massive pressure on our services. We need careful industrial growth and tight protection of agriculture from sprawling development. Without careful and comprehensive planning, our way of life could be left in ruins.
Certainly, municipal leaders must pressure the provincial and federal governments directly to get our fair share. But it is far too easy to be ignored.
Take the hospital as an example. If it were not for the immense pressure for a new hospital with comprehensive services, Northumberland residents could have easily been left with little more than a first-aid station. More people than ever would be sent out of town for treatment. (It is still not ideal, but better than some).
Northumberland County must draw strength from numbers. So it should work hard to transform AMO into a more powerful, effective lobby. It might also be far more efficient if local municipalities used the county as its voice, providing a single, unified front when obtaining grants, rather than each municipalities squabbling for scraps. Municipalities like Alnwick-Haldimand Township don’t stand a chance when trying to compete with large urban centres like Kitchener-Waterloo.
The recent economic development initiatives at the county prove this to be true. Two local representatives are working on a subcommittee to divide about $10 million in funding for economic development. It would be ludicrous to imagine Trent Hills and Cobourg fighting with Port Hope and Hamilton Township at this table. The united front provided by the county could mean success.
Finally, governments need to save money. By creating a single focal point for negotiations, the bureaucracy would be drastically reduce for managing all the countless programs.
Let’s hope our politicians are up for the task. The county would be the beneficiary.