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Friday, December 8, 2023
Opinion: Amalgamation will be bad for Niagara and bad for democracy
Keith McNenly was the chief administrative officer of the Town of Mono for 41 years until his retirement in 2016. SUPPLIED

Keith McNenly
Special to The Lake Report

‘Tis the season of ghosts and goulies, with decorations, costumes and candies leading up to the great day, then come Nov. 1 it’s all over except to gorge on the leftover candies and rid our lawns of Halloween’s detritus. 

And so it is the appropriate season to again raise the spectre of the many joys of amalgamation. 

The ghostly apparitions of better services and lower taxes, the big buildup, then the big day and “magico presto” the Town of Niagara-on-The-Lake is lowered into the grave, and the Regional City of Niagara rises into bureaucratic paradise. 

The small towns and cities are forever forgotten in our new “megacity” utopia.

Ontario is resplendent with the ghosts of amalgamations past. The primary benefit of amalgamation is simple: to remove and silence the voices of residents when unwanted development is approved, government edifices are built, bureaucracies are expanded, services are deteriorated and taxes are raised. 

I am writing in response to former Niagara Region chief administrator Harry Schlange’s proposal in favour of amalgamating the 12 towns and cities of Niagara into the City of Niagara, or some other such honorific, (“Schlange thinks amalgamation would benefit Niagara,” Oct. 12).

I am a NOTL resident retired from a career of 41 years as a municipal chief administrator.

The notion that big government is the best government, simply because there are fewer politicians is laughable, if it wasn’t also dangerous to democracy.

Big governments, like big corporations, leave you out of the equation.

Your small-town but earnest local representatives, working for you from their kitchen tables without staff or a big office suite in a large municipal palace (and being paid peanuts), will be replaced with nearly anonymous politicians who are there for the job, the pay, the power and the support of their highly paid professional staff. 

Your access will be exceedingly limited, mostly to the staff. Your voice will be weaker.  

The democracy you now enjoy will be gone forever because amalgamations are never undone. When we permit amalgamation it is a decision we make not just for ourselves, but for all who follow us.

The promised $25 million per year savings and improved services spread out over all of Niagara’s towns, cities and the region itself will be more than eclipsed by just the new headquarters palace that inevitably will be required to house all the new super politicians, their suites of offices, staff, furniture, computers, copiers, etc.

Our neighbours working for us as elected councillors for next to nothing will not serve in the new role of a single elected politician representing NOTL.

Conservative development ideology in Ontario can only be resisted by fully informed and involved citizens, with a strong voice in each town that is affected by inappropriate development proposals. 

Recently, we were advised that hundreds of acres would be removed from the Niagara Escarpment protected area to provide affordable housing. Of course, it was really to provide billions for developers, as revelations of unethical behaviour are emerging in the media. 

Nothing in government is simple.  Municipal finance is especially difficult to understand if you haven’t worked there. 

The Mike Harris government (1995-2002), compelled the amalgamation of Ontario municipalities.

Conservatives know that informed taxpayers working within the powers of small local governments, can and do upset the almost automatic approval of inappropriate and unwanted development.

Involved informed taxpayers are a pain to developers and to provincial governments with visions of growth and taxes. 

I’m not advocating the status quo. It simply doesn’t exist and never has. No matter where we come from, we all know everything changes all the time and will continue to do so. Everything has and will continue to become more complicated tomorrow than it was yesterday. 

Big government has pushed out small communities as inefficient and costly, but that is not true. They are effective and small-town politicians are the cheapest hardworking deal around. 

Amalgamation is usually pushed with the trope of reducing the number of politicians. However, they are then replaced with highly paid, full-time bureaucrats.

Nothing wrong with civil service workers, but there is a role for local politicians, those people who have their name on a ballot, and that you choose every four years. 

When local democracy was first invented it was small and personal. I’m sure everyone in the town knew every politician, judge, clerk, etc. 

Big government is impersonal. Would you expect a new megacity mayor from a distant area to appreciate or even acknowledge your concerns about the numerous development proposals in our unique NOTL? 

Democracy is only approachable for many at its smallest local iteration. Direct influence of democracy does not exist at the provincial or federal levels.

For most Ontario citizens, it does not effectively function at the local level because most citizens live in municipalities with populations greater than several Canadian provinces. Not so in NOTL.

Amalgamation pushers extoll imaginary savings, but we know better. Most remember the chaos of the Toronto amalgamation; the still-stagnated service and transit projects; deteriorating parks and community infrastructure, while taxes rise.

Perhaps those who enumerate lists of imaginary savings might examine the promises made in Ontario’s previous rush to amalgamations.

Democracy is inconvenient for developers. Enfranchised citizens can be a pain to those who prefer to impose their own views over the wisdom of the citizens.

Over the past several decades, local governance at a human scale and approachability has been as fleeting as the ghosts and goulies of Halloween.

If we let our approachable, effective and stable democracy slip away today, it will be gone forever.

Keith McNenly was the chief administrative officer of the Town of Mono for 41 years.


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