New bill could end re­gional chair ap­point­ments

The $200,000 gig over­see­ing York Re­gion has been un­elected since 1971

Richmond Hill Post - - News - DAVID FLEIS­CHER Post City Mag­a­zines’ colum­nist David Fleis­cher is a long­time jour­nal­ist and cur­rently an ur­ban plan­ner liv­ing in York Re­gion.

If the chair­per­son and CEO of York Re­gion sat down be­side you at the lo­cal Star­bucks, you likely wouldn’t rec­og­nize him. There’s also a de­cent chance you don’t re­ally know pre­cisely what his job is nor why you should care.

But the chair (it’s Wayne Em­mer­son, for­mer mayor of Whitchurch-Stouf­fville, by the way) earns more than $200,000 of your tax dol­lars ev­ery year in his role as not-quite-mayor of a mu­nic­i­pal­ity with a pop­u­la­tion of more than 1.1 mil­lion and grow­ing. He’s also un­elected, just like all his pre­de­ces­sors dat­ing back to the re­gion’s cre­ation in 1971. That might be set to change.

York Re­gion Coun­cil voted 14-5 against mak­ing the chair an elected po­si­tion. In the mean­time, the en­abling pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­tion, Bill 42, has passed se­cond read­ing at Queen’s Park, and there’s still time to make it hap­pen for the 2018 elec­tion.

How­ever, a pre­lim­i­nary coun­cil dis­cus­sion in Novem­ber sug­gested re­gional politi­cians don’t re­ally see a need to change a sys­tem I’d ar­gue we’ve long since out­grown and led to a re­quest for staff to re­port back in Fe­bru­ary.

A lit­tle his­tory: When York and the other re­gional mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties were cre­ated, they em­u­lated Metro Toronto’s two-tier struc­ture, long and right­fully re­garded as an ex­em­plary gov­er­nance model. The his­toric city of Toronto pro­vided a fi­nan­cial base for grow­ing the newer sub­urbs, such as North York and Scar­bor­ough; and plan­ning, in­clud­ing in­fra­struc­ture and tran­sit, was well co-or­di­nated. But York Re­gion didn’t have a sin­gle, strong base. In­stead, it had nine small mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties with lit­tle in com­mon. Over the years they’ve grown closer to­gether, but it wasn’t the same thing.

You prob­a­bly never say, “I’m from York Re­gion.” Most of us re­late to our lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­ity and don’t think about what the re­gion does even though it ac­counts for half the prop­erty tax bill.

Much as Metro once did in Toronto, the re­gion runs ma­jor ser­vices such as tran­sit and po­lice.

When you drive from your lo­cal road onto a main street, such as Yonge Street or High­way 7, you’ve crossed into re­gional ju­ris­dic­tion. The same goes for the pipes un­der the street, where the re­gion owns the mains and your lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­ity the smaller ones that con­nect to your house. Markham may pick up your garbage, but it’s the re­gion that dis­poses of it and sells the re­cy­clables.

As with the for­mer chair­per­son of Metro, the present re­gional chair is not quite like the mayor.

He sits on ev­ery com­mit­tee and wields great in­flu­ence as a power­bro­ker be­tween the dis­parate mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, but he only votes in the case of a tie. He’s the one who sits down with the up­per lev­els of govern­ment when we want money for a sub­way or hos­pi­tal, and he’s the one who poses at the rib­bon cut­tings when one opens.

But the big­gest dif­fer­ence is that he’s not elected but rather ap­pointed by coun­cil af­ter the elec­tion. The vote to elect the chair takes place in pub­lic, but the back­room deals or ne­go­ti­a­tions that pre­cede it do not.

There are chal­lenges to mak­ing the po­si­tion electable. For one, can­di­dates would have to cam­paign over an area triple the size of Toronto with half the pop­u­la­tion. Res­i­dents of the more ru­ral “north­ern six” mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties would also want to be as­sured their in­ter­ests will be pro­tected un­der the sway of the far more pop­u­lous Rich­mond Hill, Vaughan and Markham.

But to para­phrase Churchill, democ­racy is only ter­ri­ble when not com­pared to ev­ery other sys­tem. Durham fi­nally started elect­ing its own chair in 2014, and Hal­ton has done it for years. A ref­er­en­dum dur­ing Durham’s long process found 80 per cent of res­i­dents wanted to vote for the po­si­tion. Of course, no one’s asked you yet, and it’s hard to cre­ate change with­out a strong pub­lic voice call­ing for it.

York Re­gion is one of the big­gest and fastest grow­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in Canada and be­ing able to vote for the per­son in charge is just one more sign, as if we need it, that we’ve grown up.

In­ter­est­ingly, Ni­a­gara Coun­cil shot down a sim­i­lar ef­fort last year, with politi­cians ar­gu­ing res­i­dents care more about jobs and the econ­omy than pesky things like how their leader is se­lected or trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity.

I’m not sure ap­a­thy is the best ba­sis for a sys­tem of govern­ment, but they’re go­ing with it for as long as they can. Hope­fully we’ll con­sider try­ing some­thing bet­ter.

Viva tran­sit is run by York Re­gion and not the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties

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