New bill could end regional chair appointments
The $200,000 gig overseeing York Region has been unelected since 1971
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