Gary Zalepa didn’t like the tone of a question put to him by Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff..
The Niagara-on-the-Lake lord mayor was answering Oosterhoff’s inquiry concerning the number of politicians in Niagara during a meeting of the standing committee on heritage infrastructure and cultural policy at the Holiday Inn & Suites in St. Catharines Wednesday.
Oosterhoff noted Niagara has 126 politicians versus the 124 members governing the entire province at Queen’s Park.
“Changing government, moving it and making it further away and reducing the number of elected people … that will be shameful,” Zalepa said.
For NOTL, he said dealing with large entities has not been positive in the past.
“They pulled schools out of my municipality, they pulled a hospital out of my municipality. We don’t have elected people on their boards. It’s a disaster.”
Zalepa, regional chair Jim Bradley and mayors from Niagara’s other 11 municipalities spoke to the committee, made up of members from governing Progressive Conservatives and opposition New Democrats and one Liberal MPP.
The committee was in the Garden City to gather input for its study on regional governance and how it may impact the ability to build new homes and address the province’s affordability crisis.
NOTL, Zalepa noted, is a very engaged community that keeps its politicians accountable.
“We’re not full-time politicians,” he said. “We work, we live there, we volunteer there.”
And it doesn’t cost a lot, he added.
“The total salaries for our council is just about $182,000,” he said. “That’s the total budget, which is well below Ontario’s average salary for local politicians.”
Zalepa remained upset after the meeting, where he had been sitting next to St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe, who had advocated for the region’s dissolution and that Niagara be divided up into four cities with shared services such as transit being overseen by boards or commissions.
“Maybe they should sit down with the City of Niagara Falls and come up with the deal between them and fill their boots,” Zalepa said.
He was, however, grateful to have had the opportunity to speak at the meeting on behalf of residents.
“My residents are very concerned about this (governance) issue and they have been for a long time,” Zalepa said.
“And I think it’s an opportunity to voice them.”
Earlier, Bradley noted there have been numerous proposals on how to reshape governance in Niagara — amalgamation into one municipality, amalgamation into four municipalities and the elimination of the region among them.
And with the committee’s review being predicated on finding ways to build more homes to help address the housing affordability crisis, Bradley said amalgamation isn’t necessarily the answer.
“The facts speak for themselves,” he told the committee.
“Amalgamation or dissolution is not a silver bullet solution to build more homes, tackle homelessness greatly reduce administrative burdens.”
Rather, he said “incremental changes” to current governance in Niagara could help.
“There’s always room for improvement,” he said.
The province can help municipalities without altering governance in several ways, Bradley said. He suggested the government establish a provincial chief planner to resolve conflicts and expedite approvals.
In addition, the land tribunal process can be streamlined to ensure appeals have merit before they are heard.
The government can also create incentives “to encourage the private sector to build more purpose built and affordable rentals,” he said.
In addition to the politicians, the committee also heard Wednesday from representatives of the Niagara Business & Innovation Fund and the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce.