Municipalities are the most undervalued level of government in Ontario. They shoulder an incredible burden in the delivery of services, and operate in both representative and administrative capacities. Although attention to municipal affairs becomes so readily eclipsed by the flash of federal and provincial politics, there is nothing more immediate, relevant, and essential than the services provided by your local municipality. It affects us every day - from when we take a shower in the morning, put out our garbage, drive or cycle on the roads, and take our leisure in the many parks and recreational facilities. But, like so many things so close to us, it is easy to take it for granted.
The appetite for change was more than apparent in October, 2014 as several new councils were elected, ushering in a lot of bold and passionate rookies with a desire to put their stamp on policies that are innovative and facilitate constructive change.
It is no secret that municipalities are generally tasked with a lot of the heavy lifting, and yet do not get a proportionate share of the tax pie. Their autonomy is somewhat boxed in by provisions in the Municipal Act 2001 (amended by Bill 130 in 2004). They also face unique challenges with respect to community identity after the Mike Harris government, seeking efficiencies, enacted a double whammy of forced amalgamations and the downloading of services (the arguably inefficient and unjust LSRs - Local Service Realignments). Municipalities in this context still face numerous challenges, but they also have new opportunities - PPPs (private-public partnerships), shared services, dedicated economic development positions, and a growing sense of value has burgeoned in the past several years positioning municipalities as change agents and optimizing their political power to put pressure on provincial government. We have always to remember that municipalities are on the front-line of providing quality of life for residents of this province.
My focus is on rural and sparsely populated municipalities. Their issues and challenges are very much shared across the province. I believe there is a strong and prosperous future for these regions, and there is something far more preferable in said regions that one will not find in a larger, urban centre. The issues these regions face are partially the consequence of demographics, and partially remaining challenges that are holdovers from the 1996 amalgamations. Here are just a few of the many issues, in no particular order, and areas that I will be focusing on in the coming months, years, and (hopefully) in the context of a future municipal career:
There are several new ideas to meet these challenges. Some municipalities are seeking to make themselves “market ready,” and that involves the creation of an economic development officer position (the so-called “Ec-Dev” push), and municipal marketing plans, downtown master plans, beautification, and so forth. Others are pursuing the prospect of expanding their PPPs, as well as seeking shared services arrangements with neighbouring municipalities (for example, the sharing of a fire chief). Boosting culture and environment are also key to inspiring growth and quality of life. I would argue that there is a need to create a Parks & Recreation Director position in every municipality (more on that in a future post).
In the context of strategic planning, I am learning ever more as I go. I suspect that my entry into the MAP program will further my understanding of many of these issues, and empower me to take on a leadership role in advocating for positive change whereby rural and sparsely populated communities thrive and prosper for many generations to come.