Will Cambridge decide to ditch Waterloo Region?
Coun. Nicholas Ermeta has raised the issue of secession
CAMBRIDGE — Secession dreams, like cardboard candidate signs, tend to float above the city’s political landscape come municipal election time.
Life without a big and allegedly inefficient Region of Waterloo calling so many shots in Cambridge sounds idyllic to some.
“I’m pretty confident the city could operate well as a standalone city,” said incumbent Coun. Nicholas Ermeta, who is running again in Ward 8 and publicly floating the notion of secession as the Oct. 22 election nears.
“Where the issue lies is getting there. Once you’re part of regional government, it’s very hard to separate.”
The costs associated with Cambridge going it alone and picking up the full tab for regional services — like police, ambulances, garbage, transit, major roads, social services, water supply and sewage treatment — might be too staggering to contemplate.
So Ermeta is cautious about the standalone option. He isn’t ready to champion it. But singletier works for cities like Barrie, Guelph, Stratford and Kingston, so why not Cambridge, he argues.
“I’m not ruling it out,” he said. “A standalone city is not necessarily an island.”
That’s because there is another option, he says: the service board model. Get rid of the region — which keeps snubbing the city’s wishes by pencilling in a potential supervised injection site in the Galt core — and its top-down decision-making model, Ermeta says. Bring in a bottom-up model. Let the cities and townships get together in a limited-power association for items like police, transit and water services.
“I think it’s a good idea to have a discussion,” says Mayor Doug Craig, who figures simply eliminating the region and making Cambridge a standalone city would be too expensive.
Kathryn McGarry, one of four mayoral challengers to Craig, would want city residents to have a say on any secession possibilities. “On a question like this, the people of our community should have a direct say on whether Cambridge would or would not remain part of the region,” she said in an email to The Record.
“My concern is that the Cambridge taxpayers would be responsible for the cost of all of our services. The Service Board Model would have to be examined carefully to make sure this would not increase costs for the average taxpayer.”
In 1978, a non-binding plebiscite asked Cambridge voters if they wanted to ditch the region. They voted five-to-one in favour of splitting.
In an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1994, former city councillor Rick Cowsill argued one level of local government must disappear heading into the 21st century. Yet, as many in Cambridge bristle at paying for an initial LRT phase that will only serve Kitchener and Waterloo, the region remains.
But Ermeta says big changes could be coming to the municipal landscape no matter what people think, especially with Premier Doug Ford already pulling out the notwithstanding clause to essentially cut Toronto city council’s numbers in half.
“It’s not just a Cambridge-Waterloo Region issue,” he says. “It’s basically going to be happening all across the province ... A number of other communities across the 905 want a full separation, want to be 100 per cent standalone.”
Ermeta says he has Ford’s ear on the Cambridge situation. He says Ford invited him to Ford’s inauguration in June and he was able to talk briefly with the premier on Cambridge issues.
“The province, they want to find more efficiencies in local governments,” Ermeta says. “With the region, there is duplication. By giving our city a greater say and reducing the level of the region, I do believe it could fit into the plan to streamline government more and create more efficient government.”
Ermeta stresses that talk about secession is in the very early stages. He wants to talk with the community and regional officials. He won’t be going to the province and submitting a plan behind their back, he says.
Ken Seiling, who is retiring after 33 years as regional chair, sees any secession talk in Cambridge as problematic.
“First of all, Cambridge doesn’t have the ability to do it on its own,” he says. “If, in fact, anybody even agreed to a separate model, you can’t just pick and choose the services you want. And, in fact, Cambridge would pay the full cost of all services that they got.”
And a visit by a provincial commissioner to a municipality looking for the restructuring can be a gamble. As 2000 arrived, reform led to forced mergers for Sudbury, Ottawa and Hamilton.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Seiling says. “Because you may get the exact opposite of what you think you’re going to get.”