On April 24, Ken Seiling and Michael Fenn who are advising the province on possible municipal reforms heard perspectives from 21 delegations on what is recommended for Waterloo Region. What follows is a slightly edited version of the ideas I shared.
Sleeping in Kitchener, eating breakfast in Waterloo
Growing up in Kitchener, I never understood why it was a separate city from Waterloo. I was fascinated by the idea that you could wake up in Kitchener and have breakfast in Waterloo without ever leaving your house. While that may be an urban legend but even so, it shows just how intertwined the two cities are.
Kitchener and Waterloo are really one city
I’m still puzzled by the existence of two cities that are essentially one except for an arbitrary boundary. Why do we need two sets of administration, two sets of bylaws and two sets planning codes. It makes life and business more complicated not less.
Together, Kitchener and Waterloo are one urban centre so making them one city is a reform I urge you to consider.
I have heard that our current governance structure is successful and if its working don’t mess with it.
Having two tiers is failing Traynor-Vanier
Ask the residents of Traynor-Vanier as they use an informal crossing to get past fences put up behind their homes during LRT construction and over a big pile of rocks to cross the track if our current system is working. Five years after starting to make the case for a proper crossing to return their neighbourhood’s walkability and three years after going public with their inability to easily get groceries or perform many other daily tasks, they continue to make the unsafe crossing if they physically able to do so.
The Region initially balked at adding a crossing. When the need went public, the city of Kitchener took the project on. One Regional politician tweeted that was sufficient even if the Region caused the problem. Eventually, the city brought regional staff into collaborate but that didn’t speed it up. It meant figuring out who was responsible for doing what.
Neither municipality took ownership of the project instead it became a side project for both. So neither municipality made it a priority to get it done. Meanwhile residents and their supporters have had trouble identifying how to push for quick action when two municipalities are involved and you don’t know where the bottle neck is or who can solve it. Instead it became a lower priority with each municipality patiently waiting for the other to do its part and move the project forward.
The local city Councillor saw the crossing as being a regional responsibility and was slow to take action. Regional Councillors with a city-wide mandate do not feel the pressure to get a hyper-local project fast tracked.
Even after a rally last July generated lots of media coverage and got the two CAOs involved with the target to begin construction about right now, the project has failed to be expedited. Residents don’t even know when the crossing will be built and likely won’t even see it in 2019.
State of limbo exists when an issue crosses tiers
That’s just one example of how rather that being a success, the division of municipal responsibilities between the Region and a city is really a chasm which because both sides respect the division, no one crosses it and too many issues or projects that do, spend most of their time in a state of limbo. And the worst part is that it confuses the vast majority of people who are not actively working at a municipality who want “the city” to get something done.
When a regional issue turns out not to be one but also is
Take clearing snow off of sidewalks for example. The sidewalks beside Regional roads are actually owned and maintained by the city. So that means advocating at the city level for what should have a region-wide service level. Of course, you need to remember that responsibility for clearing bus stops is a regional responsibility (even years after a master plan suggested it be transferred). And the Region’s contractors to clear the stops wait to do so until after the city plows the Regional roads. As a result of this lack of coordination and cohesion, people who we are actively encouraging to use public transit for transportation or have mobility issues are left to struggle and guess.
So I recommend that instead of two tiers, we have one (or more) single tier municipality.
Some city councillors should sit on regional council too
If we retain two tiers, we need to reform how we elect our municipal politicians. Right now it is nearly impossible to get elected to Regional Council for a city without having been elected to something else before or having an extremely high public profile. That rules out countless candidates who have neither the name recognition or money to win a city-wide election but who could make valuable contributions related to Regional issues and responsibilities. But ironically after the election, voters are hard pressed to name any Regional Councillors and don’t see them as who to first go to for improving our community even if the Region is the appropriate level to take action.
Regional Councillors represent too many people over too large of a geographic area. That means residents often lack advocates who understand how an issue affects their part of the city and cares enough to pursue a solution. So we should go back to having some of our councillors sit on both city and regional councils and at the same time have wards. Embracing a ranked ballot could assist having something like larger wards served by two councillors with one on both councils. Knowing that a Regional role is involved (and desirable to candidates) means that the election will need to focus on both regional and city issues.
We need a regional fire department
While I didn’t get a chance to say so in my presentation, I believe that a regional fire department is a must. I understand that not long ago, the current system meant that a fire in Kitchener, for example, better served by Waterloo did not automatically happen. I believe (or hope) that improvements such as shared service agreements and a move to centralize dispatch has addressed that issue. Still we really need to plan where stations are, where equipment is based by looking at the Region as a whole without being concerned about city boundaries.
Reform can better engage residents in local issues
I don’t imagine that municipal reform is going to make all of our problems dealing with local issues go away. It may even create some. But the status quo is not good enough.
We need to improve engagement people in local issues. Having a complicated two-tier system gets in the way of achieving that objective. No wonder voter turnout is so poor.
After nearly 50 years, now is the time for reform that better connects people to the governance of Waterloo Region.