In November of 1947, Winston Churchill stated: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried, in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government — except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Indeed, while I would much rather live in a democracy than under any other form of government, there are fundamental weaknesses inherent in any expression of democratic governance that human beings have, to date, developed.
I would suggest that one of these fundamental weaknesses relates to the size of the electorate base — in other words, the greater the number of voters represented by a single politician, the less influence an individual voter (or group of voters) has on the policies and actions of said elected representative.
Now, for argument’s sake, if we assume this to be true, then the level of government most responsive to the electorate would be the local municipal councils while each higher tier becomes successively more divorced from the will of the people and more inclined to adopt the paternalistic attitude that “father knows best.”
And, not wishing to be disabused of this notion by the inconvenient voices or actions of the lower tiers of government — which are responding more directly to the will of their communities — they limit the power, authority and financial wherewithal of these lower tiers.
Traditionally, this has been done by playing shell games with policy and legislative direction. Quite simply, with only property tax revenues, no municipal government has the money to hire sufficient staff to keep up with the changes in governing legislation and, as a result, will regularly be found non-compliant with legislation allowing local decisions to be ignored or overruled by the upper tiers (and the supporting bureaucracy).
Since 2018, Premier Doug Ford’s government has played this traditional game like a virtuoso with perhaps more actions deliberately directed at the hobbling of municipal tiers than any other preceding provincial government.
Consider his government’s changes to heritage designation and “listed” properties — changes that not only made it more difficult to designate but also forced municipal governments to devote their limited staff resources to designating listed heritage resources on a short 24-month timeline.
After all, staff engaging in this vital effort means fewer hands and minds available to undertake the other business of municipal planning departments.
Then, not content with traditional tactics to limit local democratic representation, among other items, Ford has (in certain jurisdictions) reduced the numbers of elected municipal representatives — lessening direct voter influence.
Further “strong mayor” powers have been introduced: witness their use in Welland to hire a chief administrative officer without council involvement – an action decried by one councillor as “using the power takes away responsibilities of councillors, who are the voice for residents who elected them.”
This is not a unique situation: the mayor of Caledon did exactly the same thing (first firing the existing officer) in August.
This action elicited a comment from one of the councillors (Lynn Kiernan) who stated: “Mayor (Annette) Groves has effectively silenced the voices of the other members of council by these actions. Using these powers is a gross violation of our democratic principles.”
Of course, Ford has justified all these changes in order to “get more homes built faster,” but one wonders: how might the hiring of a chief administrative officer, the vetoing of a bylaw or the use of most of the other provisions of strong mayor powers accomplish this objective?
I am reminded of the words of Sir James Jeans: “Democracy is ever eager for rapid progress and the only progress which can be rapid is progress downhill.”
This might, for our purposes here, be paraphrased to suggest that democratically elected governments are ever eager for rapid progress … because I’m quite sure that the people of this province are more interested in a measured and considered approach to progress that respects the communities they live in.
Moreover, the evidence presented through Ford’s aborted Greenbelt debacle and the staggering number of municipal zoning orders his government issued — more than the total of all municipal zoning orders issued by previous provincial governments in the history of Ontario — to bypass local development controls shows unmitigated pandering to developers.
And how does this “rapid progress” going “downhill” manifest at a local level?
In the past year, we have seen a number of development proposals floated before Niagara-on-the-Lake’s town staff, its committees and council.
Dipping into this list, a quick representative sample might include the multi-storey residential development on Mary Street, the hotel development on the Parliament Oak property on King Street, the 25-storey multi-use high-density development in Glendale and the multi-unit condo development at the top end of King Street.
In every single case, each of these proposals requires zoning or bylaw amendments to proceed.
In every single case, community reaction has been clear, swift and nearly universally opposed to the developments — as proposed.
The question is, will these developers proceed to further their proposals?
And the answer is: very likely.
As I have pointed out in this and several previous columns (for example, see: “The Greenbelt and the games governments play” in the Oct. 26 edition of this paper), no matter what reasons or rationale underwrite a decision rendered by our municipal council, if it is not in favour of the development proposal, the developer has the option of appeal to the Ontario Land Tribunal.
And, because the province continually changes the rules of the game while the municipality lacks the funds to always remain current with those changes, it is almost inevitable that the local government will be found non-compliant in one or more technicalities.
It is really no surprise that the Ontario Land Tribunal record stands at 96.6 per cent in favour of developers.
This leads us to the situation with the Bice Builders’ King Street condo project, wherein the developer simply ignored council’s request for continued dialogue and waited until the 120-day time limit for a council decision (imposed by the Ford government) ran out, which allowed the company to file for an appeal.
While Bice’s action may be viewed as biting the hand of the community that feeds it, or a question of the ethical ground upon which it was based, there is nothing illegal about what the company did.
On the contrary, the rules of the game in Ontario actually encourage developers to follow a path that will nearly always lead to a win.
Of course, there are actions the provincial government could take that would level the playing field, but given its demonstrated bias toward developers and consistent disdain for the will of voters — at any time other than the weeks leading up to an election — the odds are vanishingly small.
I have known a great number of very successful developers over the past 50 years who cared as much about their community and the people who lived in it as their pocketbooks.
The two are not mutually exclusive … despite what our provincial government seems to think.
Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.