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Conference Review

2015 AMO Conference in Review

The Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO) convened its annual conference from August 16th to 19th in the City of Niagara Falls.  With just a few months before Canada’s federal election, the theme of this year’s conference – “AMO: A Voice for You” – centred on the power of municipalities advocating together for what matters most to Ontario’s communities. 

AMO’s President and Mayor of the Town of Tecumseh, Gary McNamara, began the conference with a pledge on behalf of Ontario’s municipalities to “work with the Provincial and Federal governments, at all times and on all issues. Where we can agree on a course of action we need to take action and turn consensus into results for our communities. Where we disagree, we need to work that much harder.” Mr. McNamara recognized that consultation is an essential component of finding a path forward on difficult intergovernmental issues, but warned that ‘working together’ must go further than just consultation. “In an absence of progress, the message [of working together] becomes grating.”

In the case of joint and several liability, McNamara expressed the frustration of Ontario’s municipalities with a lack of action on the part of the Province. “We were told that it would be fixed – we were working together on it. Then there was an about face and we were told to expect nothing” said McNamara. With more than 1,600 municipal representatives in attendance, AMO’s President urged the delegation to work together to achieve greater results for Ontario’s municipalities:  “If you want AMO to have a loud and strong voice, we all have to lend our voice to AMO’s efforts.”

Day One

REBOOTING THE PUBLIC SQUARE: USING WIKINOMICS TO TRANSFORM GOVERNMENT

The public sector has a reputation for being reluctant to embrace technological advances. Mr. Anthony D. Williams presented a compelling argument in his keynote stating that municipalities who harness the digital revolution now will be able to better serve the public good. Municipalities who embrace the digital revolution can lower IT costs, be more transparent, and deliver services more efficiently.

Mr. Williams asserted that the most effective way for municipalities to harness this digital revolution is to facilitate collaboration and participation amongst their residents. He provided numerous examples of digital projects that started with limited resources but were able to achieve remarkable success by encouraging community participation. Perhaps the most powerful example involved galaxy zoo, a website designed to classify galaxies. Galaxy zoo was started by an individual student. The website allowed visitors to visually classify galaxies. In a short time over 250,000 ordinary people around the world contributed. Mr. Williams rightly pointed out that if this level of collaboration could occur with a science website, a similar level of collaboration should be easy to replicate with government data sets and programs.

Mr. Williams outlined a number of other steps municipalities must take if they are serious about harnessing the power of technological innovation. Firstly, municipalities must be willing to take risks and have the flexibility to deviate from a plan. Mr. Williams encouraged municipalities to start with a small pilot project and experiment until they find something that works. Secondly, municipalities must embrace technology as an organization-wide priority. A crucial component of this is bringing in highly skilled tech talent. However, municipalities must ensure that this talent is not isolated from but rather is continually working with the policy team. Thirdly, they must build partnerships with local colleges and universities. Lastly, Mr. Williams encouraged municipalities to collect data and analyze that data so evidence based decisions can be made. Mr. William’s presentation made it clear that the opportunities in the tech space are abundant for municipalities. Those that embrace it will be able to deliver exceptional services in a more efficient manner. Those that do not will be doing a disservice to their taxpayers.

SEA OF CHANGE AND A PRAIRIE WIND: LESSONS FOR A MORE PROSPEROUS MUNICIPAL FUTURE 

It is well reported that municipal governments in Canada receive only 9 cents of every tax dollar collected in this country. Meanwhile, municipalities face cuts to transfers from senior levels of government, a mounting infrastructure deficit – municipalities own 60 percent of the nation’s infrastructure – and ballooning operational costs. In an effort to move toward fiscal sustainability, jurisdictions across Canada have taken various approaches to lobbying their respective provincial counterparts for a new fiscal framework, some with more success than others. AMO invited Debra Button, President of the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA), and Churence Rogers, President of Municipalities Newfoundland & Labrador (MNL) to join AMO President Gary McNamara in a conversation about municipal fiscal sustainability. 

Saskatchewan is Canada’s poster child for municipal-provincial fiscal cooperation, but SUMA’s Debra Button explained how that was not always the case. “In the 1990s, Saskatchewan’s municipalities were subject to erratic unpredictable funding as the province addressed its debt by cutting transfers.” Meanwhile, the federal government of the day cut infrastructure funding programs, leaving Saskatchewan’s municipalities with an even greater fiscal crunch. “Local governments were the last priority for the provincial government, and this went on for 15 years” stated Button.

“New requirements come at us almost on a daily basis which can fill like death by a thousand cuts. It starts to add up.” - GARY MCNAMARA, PRESIDENT AMO

In 2006, the prairie winds changed with the Saskatchewan Party coming to power. In 2009 local governments were given access to a share of the PST equal to 20 percent of the previous fiscal year’s revenues. In 2015 the transfer to municipalities amounted to $265.3 million or approximately $250 per capita. Button attributes the provincial government’s policy shift in part to the united lobbying effort of Saskatchewan’s municipalities. “Municipalities figured out what would motivate the province – we needed to answer the Treasury Board’s questions so we worked for three years to be able to do that” said Button.

Their efforts paid off, with the Provincial Government introducing a predictable, inflation proof transfer tied to the province’s economic performance, in addition to ongoing funding for municipal infrastructure. Button cautioned that although this unconditional funding provides Saskatchewan’s municipalities with flexibility in spending, it has also created space for the province to scale back funding in other areas, such as housing.  

 

Newfoundland and Labrador’s municipalities are one step closer to also achieving greater fiscal sustainability. MNL, representing the province’s 276 municipalities, has been working with the Provincial Government to address the challenges of a mounting infrastructure deficit, a rapidly aging population, and limited own-source revenue from property tax. Like in Saskatchewan, municipalities in Newfoundland and Labrador have faced cuts in operational funding from the province, with a high of $50 million in transfers in 1992 to just $17 million in recent years. In response, MNL led a major educational and advocacy campaign to inform its own members, along with the public and the Provincial Government, about the great fiscal challenge facing municipalities. “Engaging our membership was crucially important – they became the ones that talked to ministers and the media pushing for change” said Churence Rogers of MNL. After a process of engagement and consultation, MNL submitted to the province 15 recommendations under three priority areas.

In Budget 2015, four of five of MNL’s first priority recommendations were confirmed, including a 1 cent per litre provincial gas tax transfer to municipalities. Additionally, the province committed to beginning consultations on a regional government system for Newfoundland and Labrador. According to Rodgers, “Newfoundland and Labrador needs regional government structure to support smaller communities. That’s the future of municipal government.”

In Ontario, an 8.35 percent sector-wide property tax increase is needed each year over the next 10 years in order to close the infrastructure gap. Ontario is already the provincial jurisdiction with the highest property taxes in Canada. All of Ontario’s 444 municipalities will need to work together to achieve a new fiscal framework. “If you’re going to be successful, you have to be informed – we spent money on good research” said Rogers. For Button, the key was taking the time to really engage the SUMA membership. As a caution to Ontario, Button added “the big lesson learned is that I wouldn’t go for unconditional funding again – the chances for downloading are too great.”

THE HONOURABLE TED MCMEEKIN, MINISTER OF MUNICIPAL AFFAIRS AND HOUSING

The Honourable Ted McMeekin, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, addressed the AMO delegation, emphasizing the importance of partnerships. He pledged to continue to seek municipal input on the Municipal Legislation Review, which will include the option for municipalities to use ranked ballots in the 2018 election. The Minister also identified ending homelessness as a top priority for the provincial government, despite the absence of a federal partner at the table. The Ministry will update the Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy by the end of 2015 and is committed to improving the stability of the current planning system. “When people have a stable place to live, we all benefit from stronger, healthier communities” said Minister McMeekin.

POLICY NOTE
As part of the Ontario Government’s Municipal Legislation Review, three pieces of legislation will be examined: The Municipal Act, the City of Toronto Act, and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.

Additionally, the Minister announced two new programs that will replace the outdated Ontario Disaster Relief Assistance Program (ODRAP): the Municipal Disaster Recovery Assistance Program will help municipalities repair damaged infrastructure following natural disasters, while the Disaster Recovery Assistance for Ontarians will assist individuals and businesses without the need for matching funds. Working together is the best way to find solutions to common barriers, and the Minister voiced his commitment to ongoing dialogue and support for municipalities.  

PATRICK BROWN, LEADER OF ONTARIO PC

Patrick Brown, the newly minted leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, addressed a packed room of municipal leaders, shedding light on his plans for improving the municipal- provincial relationship. Mr. Brown criticized Premier Wynne’s management of the economy, particularly the introduction of the ORPP program, which he said will scare away business investment and cause job loss in an already weak economy. He pointed to high hydro prices as another example of the current government’s bungling of the economy.

Mr. Brown pointed out that municipalities are currently faced with red tape and excessive reporting requirements. He bolstered this point by citing a story from ROMA where one municipality was required to submit 287 reports to the province over the span of a year. When discussing infrastructure, Mr. Brown questioned Premier Wynne’s reduction of the OMPF, arguing that it will hurt cities in need of infrastructure repair. He added that many towns are not reaping the benefits of provincial uploading as an offset.

Mr. Brown concluded by outlining his vision for a better municipal-provincial relationship where both parties work in tandem to improve the province’s economy: “In order to have a prosperous province, you need to have a strong economy. And to have a strong economy, you need to have strong municipalities. Municipalities are the drivers of our economy and I want to give you the tools to succeed. We want to be your champions at Queen’s Park so that you can confidently market your city and Ontario to the world.”

THE CANADIAN ECONOMY BY THE NUMBERS AND BENEATH THE NUMBERS

Navigating the realm of personal finance is a complex task that must not only be addressed by individuals, but also by policymakers. Preet Banerjee, an accomplished personal finance commentator and financial services consultant, shared with delegates three assumptions that can help guide public policy: (1) People are clueless about personal finance. Mr. Banerjee explained that it is common in today’s world to carry debt. Despite interest rates that significantly augment principal payments, many do not hesitate to take on debt when credit is readily available; (2) People are irrational. Consumers, for example, are inherently biased, which can impede our ability to make sound financial decisions; and (3) We live in a two-speed world, in which one part of the economy commonly fares better than another, as we are currently witnessing with the Canadian dichotomy between oil producing regions and those traditionally reliant on manufacturing. Understanding these assumptions is essential as the public sector seeks to tackle its debt, along with helping individuals to responsibly plan for their own future. 

PROVINCIAL SPOTLIGHT: ANDREA HORWATH, LEADER OF THE ONTARIO NDP

Leader of the Ontario NDP, Andrea Horwath, addressed the AMO delegation focusing on the challenges of homelessness, with 168,000 people on the waitlist for affordable housing in Ontario, and a struggling manufacturing industry, with the province shedding 330,000 manufacturing jobs in the past 12 years. Acknowledging the important role municipalities play in moving Ontario’s economy forward, Horwath stated “our province can only grow when our municipalities grow and can provide the sustainable public services that families and businesses count on.” Referencing recent cuts to power dam payments and changes to child care funding, Horwath promised to work with municipalities to stop provincial cuts that impact Ontario’s communities. Turning her attention to the Liberal Government’s plans to broaden the ownership of Hydro One, Horwath stated, “maximizing our assets doesn’t mean auctioning off what matters most, and unlocking our potential doesn’t mean selling-out Ontario.” According to Horwath, owning hydro and making investments in infrastructure shouldn’t be an either-or choice for the province. Horwath concluded by commending the municipalities that have passed resolutions opposing the sale of Hydro One assets. When asked by PSD what to make of Ed Clark’s expert panel’s recommendation to broaden the ownership of Hydro One, Horwath responded “we have the reports but we don’t have any of the factual information that was utilized to prepare the reports – the government won’t release them.” Premier Wynne responded, “There are pieces of information that are commercially sensitive as the IPO goes out in the fall, but I can tell you that what we can talk about publicly we will.” 

“All of us who’ve been in your shoes see that the sale of Hydro One could leave municipalities on the hook for even higher costs and less reliable power.” -ANDREA HORWATH

ETHICS AND INTEGRITY IN MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT

Integrity has long been expected of public sector practitioners. However, new municipal accountability measures are being implemented in light of the prevalence of conflicts of interest for municipal politicians in recent years. Mary Ellen Bench, City Solicitor for the City of Mississauga, called on councils to take ownership in reviewing codes of conduct regularly, tailoring the document to the individuals who are operating under it, and emphasized the importance of holding public meetings whenever possible. While additional scrutiny over municipalities is acceptable, Robert Swayze, Solicitor and Integrity Commissioner to various municipalities said that overlapping jurisdictions could be a problem under the new rules. Mr. Swayze also stressed the need for the definitions, such as that of “family,” to be expanded to include siblings in the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. According to Mr. Swayze, “Councillors should be encouraged to declare conflicts of interest in cases they cannot be impartial."

POLICY NOTE

Bill 8, the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act passed in 2014 and will come into effect on January 1, 2016. Schedule 9 will expand the Ontario Ombudsman’s role to include all municipalities. 

DAY TWO

NAVIGATING EMERGING CURRENTS: AN ELECTRICITY DISTRIBUTION SECTOR UPDATE

The business of hydro continued to be a focus of the AMO conference on day two, with the concurrent session on the changing electricity distribution sector in Ontario. Mark Rodger, a Partner with BLG LLP, explained how industry restructuring in Ontario in 2000 transformed local electricity utilities from an arm of municipal government to for-profit tax paying corporations owned by municipalities. “Like any other shareholder, municipalities retain the right to deal with their shares as they see fit in the best interests of their community as determined by council” stated Rodger. Once a municipality identifies clear objectives for its distribution company, it is important to prepare an economic valuation of the business to use as a benchmark for all decision making. “The bottom line is that if you’re a municipal council that still owns your LDC, you need to be directly engaged in the debate – even the decision to do nothing has implications that need to be understood” explained Rodger.
Ray Tracey, Board Chair of the Electricity Distributors Association, turned the focus of the session toward service delivery. “It’s not just about dividends, it’s about a distribution system that is smarter and can do more” said Tracey. Changes to the electricity distribution sector are creating challenges, including rate increases, but also opportunities with Bill 112 expanding the scope of LDCs allowing them to diversify services, innovate, and build consumer confidence. “We have an obligation to our rate payers to foster an environment that enhances the ability to attract capital and spur new technologies” said Tracey. “We predict a bright future for Ontario’s LDCs.” 

 

SHARING PROSPERITY? OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES IN THE SHARING ECONOMY

The sharing economy – in which sharing products or services takes precedence over individual ownership – is not a new development, but technology has allowed it to grow exponentially in recent years. It is therefore increasingly important that policymakers understand the key players and balance competing interests. Noah Zon, Practice Lead, Intergovernmental Economic & Social Policy at the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre suggested that, while government response thus far has been disconnected and unproductive, the sharing economy is a learning opportunity for governments. He suggested that municipalities openly communicate what they’re doing and why as they navigate the transforming marketplace. Implementing pilot programs is an effective way to demonstrate a willingness to embrace the sharing economy, while shaping long term responses based on the actual impact that particular platforms and service providers have on the community.

Kevin McLaughlin, Founder of AutoShare, then explained how car sharing, a membership-based practice in which vehicles are stationed near homes, work, or transit hubs for shared use, will likely surpass ownership as the sharing economy evolves. Car sharing leads to less car use than ownership, therefore reducing waste. Indeed, Mr. McLaughlin emphasized that about 40 percent of car sharing members sell their cars. Nevertheless, as a growing but largely disjointed and unregulated industry, the implications for city planning, public policy, and accessibility must be considered. 

ASSET MANAGEMENT: WHY THE FINANCIAL STUFF MATTERS

Bill Hughes, Commissioner of Finance and Regional Treasurer from the Region of York, focused his talk on the initial findings of a collaborative study on financial sustainability done in partnership between AMO and the Region of York. Mr. Hughes emphasized that financial sustainability varies greatly from municipality to municipality. Geography, demographics, tier, population growth, fiscal capacity and infrastructure intensity are all factors that impact financial sustainability and can vary greatly even among municipalities of similar size.

Mr. Hughes argued that a municipality simply cannot have financial sustainability without good asset management. Perhaps the greatest strength of his presentation was Mr. Hughes’ strategic use of quantitative research. Through his data, Mr. Hughes demonstrated how proper asset management can dramatically lower costs for a municipality. He made it clear that how much a municipality should be saving for asset management depends greatly on their specific situation. Thus, some municipalities have more time to address their infrastructure deficit than others. Simply put, there is no universal approach when it comes to effective municipal asset management. 

RANKED BALLOT VOTING: A NEW OPTION FOR MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS

The Government of Ontario has committed to reviewing the Municipal Elections Act in order to provide municipalities with the option of using ranked ballots in their next election. Dave Meslin with the Ranked Ballot Initiative Toronto addressed the protracted myths that plague ranked ballot elections, including the myth that ranked ballots are unfair compared to the first-past-the-post system. With ranked ballot voting the person that received the most ‘first choice’ votes might not win the election, but if they didn’t receive more than 50 percent of the vote perhaps they shouldn’t win. “Ranked ballot voting gives the elected representative a stronger mandate – you get to say ‘I won by a majority’” explained Meslin.

The City of Minneapolis is a pioneer in adopting ranked ballot voting, having already completed two ranked ballot elections. In the city’s second ranked ballot election in 2013, voter turnout was up 10 percentage points from the previous election. 88 percent of voters ranked at least 2 choices on the ballot and 77 percent ranked at least 3 choices. 87 percent of voters found ranking to be simple and 65 percent of candidates reported that their campaign strategies changed as a result of the ranked ballot voting, with many adopting strategies to secure second and third choice support from other candidates’ supporters. In fact, the newly elected Mayor indicated that she owed much of her victory to asking city residents for their second and third votes if they couldn’t commit to her as their first choice. According to Minneapolis’ City Clerk Casey Carl, the media reported not liking the ranked ballot election as it detracted from the combativeness (and thereby newsworthiness) of campaigns with candidates behaving more collegiately as to not jeopardize second and third choice support. Kate Mason-Smith, ADM for Local Government and Planning Policy with Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, provided an update on the province’s consultation process on ranked ballots. From a sample of 3500 respondents, the province found the majority to be in support of allowing municipalities to choose to use the ranked ballot system, while very few supported limiting ranked ballots to only the head of council elections. The province anticipates bringing forward their changes to the Municipal Elections Act in late 2015 to provide municipalities with ample time to prepare for the 2018 elections.     

TOOLS AND TIPS FOR COUNCILLORS IN ASSET MANAGEMENT: MAKING MUNICIPAL ASSETS PAY FUTURE DIVIDENDS

The role of municipal councils in asset management is unique. Councillors must understand and be able to communicate effectively about the value of community assets. The complete Council Member’s Toolkit, a guide to evaluating asset management activities, was highlighted by expert panelists John Burke, former CAO and Ontario Deputy Minister, Michael Fenn of Fenn Advisory Services, and Don May of Almost There Inc. Municipal assets should be considered through three lenses. First, councillors must determine what municipal programs and services should be offered and at what service level. Service levels vary between communities and must be reconsidered regularly as factors including community needs and demographics change.

FURTHER READING
Advancing Asset Management in Canadian Municipalities
"Many communities are re-examining their approach to asset management as a means of prioritizing needed investment, and strengthening their approach to planning and decision making” – Ross Homeniuk, KPMG

Second, the return on investment for each asset should be assessed. This includes determining the reliability of services and whether there will be any downtime in providing a given service. Third, councillors must ask themselves whether existing assets can be leveraged to be more productive. According to Mr. Fenn, asset management should be a budget priority every year, not just when assets are being acquired and disposed of. Integrating asset management planning with energy, land use, and accessibility planning is key to creating a culture that prioritizes holistic asset management.

ENHANCING RURAL ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT 

This session offered an analysis of effective economic development strategies for small and rural communities. The panel was designed to provide both a theoretic perspective on the topic as well as a pragmatic perspective. Dr. John Devlin from the University of Guelph presented his research which focused on examining emerging best practices in the organization, governance, and structure of rural regions. His research indicated that extensive collaboration can lead to great benefit for all parties involved. For this collaboration to be successful, it must strive to create a regional identity and shared interests. Dr. Devlin also found that collaboration was most successful when it was heavily subsidized by external funders. Thus, his research suggests that the province should play a larger role in funding collaborative efforts among municipalities.

Liz Huff from Seeley’s Bay provided some excellent practical tips for municipalities looking to improve their economic development strategies. Ms. Huff discussed an innovative solution for economic development in small municipalities: the development of a robust volunteer network. By using volunteers Seeley’s Bay was able to keep important local initiatives going despite the turnover of municipal staff. She cautioned municipalities looking for a quick fix. “Be in it for the long haul, it will take four times as long as you think,” said Ms. Huff. It is important to capture the hearts of volunteers – sell them on the place, not on technical boundaries or policies.

Critical for municipalities to hear, Seeley’s Bay was able to do all this with almost no spending due to the use of a strong volunteer network. Extra money was also raised through an extensive fundraising initiative. Ms. Huff’s message to municipalities was clear; you do not need a large budget to have success with economic development. Successful economic development simply requires patience, hard work, collaboration and creative ideas. 

PLACE MAKING: LOVED PLACES AND WHY THEY MATTER 

Dr. Katherine Loflin, also known as the “City Doctor”, provided AMO delegates with a summary of a concept that is captivating the attention of cities and community builders across North America — Place Making. Beyond the strategy of making your city ‘liveable’, Dr. Loflin teaches municipal leaders how to create places and spaces in their communities that will match with the interests of their current and prospective residents. “As people search for their place match, you want them to find a place match in you” said Loflin. All communities need to engage in the important exercise of identifying what kind of ‘place’ you want to offer your residents and visitors because, as Loflin explained “place quality matters to economic vitality.”
For example, young people in North America are now choosing place over job when deciding where to put down roots. “We are truly seeing the role of place in a new way and it is certainly deserving of a seat at the economic development table” said Loflin. In order to increase the likelihood of place match between residents and their community, and also ensure higher levels of place attachment, Loflin provided three key areas for cities to focus on: optimizing social offerings, optimizing aesthetics, and optimizing openness.
Loflin mentioned Norfolk County’s ‘Ontario’s South Coast’ destination marketing campaign as an example of a community recreating it’s place identity authentically in order to increase place match, and drive more tourism while they’re at it. Loflin left the delegation of Ontario’s mayors and councillors with the challenge to operate like the proverbial mother-in-law of the place match between resident and community: “Just like a good mother-in-law, you need to facilitate the match – sometimes that means leading, and at other times that means getting out of the way.”   

FIRST NATIONS LEADERS PANEL

AMO invited some of Ontario’s First Nations Chiefs, including Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day, to communicate some of the challenges facing their respective communities and to explore opportunities for moving forward in partnership with Ontario’s municipalities. “We want to set the context of First Nations-Municipal relations” said Chief Day. The panel of Chiefs announced that on August 24th they would be signing a protocol agreement with the Province of Ontario to engage First Nations. 

POLICY NOTE
On August 24th, 2015 the Chiefs of Ontario and the Government of Ontario signed the Political Accord that will guide the relationship between First Nations and the province. Details of the Accord can be found here

Chief Ava Hill of the Six Nations of the Grand River drew the delegation’s attention to the recommendations recently put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the pervasive legacy of Canada’s residential school system. “I put pressure on you to call on your candidates in the federal election to see what they are going to do [in response to the recommendations of the Commission]” said Chief Hill. She commended the City of Brantford for supporting the repair and transformation of a former residential school, the Mohawk Institute, into a Museum of Conscience. “We are all neighbours and it is best we work together” said Chief Hill. For the Chief of Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, the key to reconciliation is education. “If the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are implemented we will no longer be a footnote in history – education is vitally important” said Chief M. Bryan LaForme.     

“Accurate education in our schools is the key to truth and reconciliation.” - CHIEF M. BRYAN LAFORME, MISSISSAUGAS OF THE NEW CREDIT FIRST NATION

PROVINCIAL SPOTLIGHT: THE HONOURABLE KATHLEEN WYNNE, PREMIER OF ONTARIO

The Honourable Kathleen Wynne, Premier of Ontario shared her government’s priorities and current initiatives with municipal leaders. From climate change to infrastructure to service delivery to financial sustainability, the Premier highlighted areas in which progress has been made and in which the province and its municipalities will continue to work together. According to the Premier, Ontario has emerged as a leader in fighting climate change. Ontario’s cap and trade system and the Canadian Energy Strategy are just two examples of the proactive approach being taken to promote sustainable growth. “Locally, we are building more resilient communities and mitigating emissions in our homes, our workplaces, and in the way we travel between the two.”

The province’s commitment to infrastructure funding was also high on the agenda: “Last year at AMO I announced that we would make the province’s $100 million Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund permanent. Since then, 78 projects have been approved under the application-based half of the fund, and it is great news that the second intake is now open.” Announced in April 2014, Moving Ontario Forward is also an important element of Ontario’s $130 billion investment in transportation and priority infrastructure over 10 years, with $31.5 billion allocated to date. In order to provide that level of funding without raising taxes, the ownership of Hydro One will be broadened. While the Hydro One issue has proved to be polarizing, the Premier argued that the move will provide greater public value and productivity. “Skepticism is good for our democracy. But by the same token, it is healthy to challenge the status quo.”

In closing, the Premier reiterated her government’s commitment to intergovernmental collaboration: “You told us that you needed a new Connecting Links program. We listened. You told us that ODRAP wasn’t working. Again, we listened. As Premier, I made it a particular priority to listen to you, our municipal partners.” While a need still remains for a strong municipal voice in national affairs, “we’re headed in the right direction.”

MINISTERS’ FORUM

Each year, the highlight of the AMO conference for many delegates is the Ministers’ Forum, also known as the Bear Pit, where municipal representatives can pose questions to the Provincial Ministers in attendance. With almost the entire Cabinet of Ontario present, including Premier Wynne, the Ministers’ Forum serves as a valuable opportunity for delegates to not only ask for direct answers to their important questions, but also make the priorities of Ontario’s municipalities well known, often reflected in the level of audience cheering following particular questions. Below is a sample of some of the questions that captured the most pressing issues for municipal governments, along with the respective Minister’s response.    

To the Honourable Ted McMeekin, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing: In the last municipal election we encountered a highly flawed voters list. Will the government commit to reviewing the Municipal Voters List?

Yes, we will. That’s part of our review of the Municipal Elections Act. I met with the Ontario Elections Officials to hear their articulation of how we can move forward on this front. It’s an issue that’s been around for some time and needs some enhancement. We would really like your input on this. 

At last year’s forum Premier Wynne committed to looking at property taxation under this review for power dams. This has been taken very seriously. Progress on the working group is happening. As you’re aware, we cancelled the planned phase down of the program for 2015 in recognition of the time needed to explore this complex issue. Our commitment is to ensure that we have a report out by the fall of this year. We are making progress toward a resolution on this issue and you’ll hear a decision on 2016 this fall.

To the Honourable Mitzie Hunter, Associate Minister of Finance: Will the Government of Ontario defer the implementation of the Power Dam Special Payment Program clawback for 2016 or abandon the clawback altogether, given the substantial risk to 1 out of 4 municipalities?

To the Honourable Madeleine Meilleur, Attorney General of Ontario: Everyone in this room knows that joint and several liability is unfair and unsustainable. Shouldn’t the system be changed to ensure that individuals responsible for reckless illegal acts are held accountable, rather than our tax payers? 

Last year I said I would like to see a proposal from the municipalities or from AMO. Right now, the proposal we have before us is to transfer the liability to the injured person. It’s very difficult to do that. If you think about it personally, if it happened to a member of your family, that’s not the way to go. We have a lot of advice against that. I’m open to other proposals rather than moving the liability to the injured person. If AMO wants to work with other municipalities to come forward with an acceptable proposal we will look at it. This proposal was put forth by municipalities and it was declined by many other stakeholders.

To the Honourable Mitzie Hunter, Associate Minister of Finance: Next year marks the final year of the scheduled phase down for the OMPF allocations [Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund]. We are in desperate need of sustainable funding – what is the government’s long term plan for the OMPF into 2017 and beyond?

We know this is an important question in terms of your long term planning. Our government has a strong commitment to supporting our municipal partners. In 2015 alone municipalities are benefiting from $3.7 billion in ongoing support through the OMPF, provincial uploads, and other provincial initiatives. This is an increase of $2.6 billion since 2003. We’ve demonstrated that through a track record of commitment. As the Premier stated we are committed to continuing with the fulfilment of the uploads so that extra capacity within your budget can be allocated as you see fit. We are working together and we have a number of reviews underway with the Ministry of Finance team, including those related to farmland. Those conversations are ongoing as it relates to the specific needs of municipalities, but our government’s commitment is to complete the uploads to free up capacity in municipal budgets.

To the Honourable Yasir Naqvi, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services: Mr. Naqvi, your government has decided recently to provide input into the controversial practice of carding, otherwise known as street checks. Your government’s decision regarding this practice, which some refer to as a form of racial profiling and many suggest is an outright violation of our Charter Rights, has effectively closed down the opportunity for local police boards to end this practice. Will your government immediately open the Police Services Act with the intention of providing police boards with more authority and specifically to eliminate this blurred line which occurs around policy decisions? If we choose to eliminate carding, we should be able to do so.

On the issue of carding, I want to be very clear and I think all of you will agree, that there is zero tolerance for any kind of racial profiling whatsoever. It’s an obligation for all of us to ensure that our communities are safe at all times and we do that by working very closely with police. That is why our government announced that we would be introducing new regulations to ensure that if a municipality decides to do street checks that it will be done so in accordance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Ontario Human Rights Code. We have already been doing consultations, we have a discussion paper available online, and we are also going to be hosting regional consultations across the province. We are working very closely with our policing partners and various community groups to develop these regulations.

To the Honourable Ted McMeekin, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing: There is an affordable housing crisis in Ontario, with 169,000 people on the wait list. How will your government help address the significant housing backlog?

It’s an issue that weighs heavy on many of us. It’s true we need a federal partner, but in the absence of a federal partner we will move forward as best we can. We’ve written a draft report on housing and the Premier has made social housing a priority. I pledge to you that the long-term affordable housing study will be detailed and substantial. 

DAY THREE

STRATEGY FOR A SAFER ONTARIO 

The Honourable Yasir Naqvi, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, focused his speech on the proposed “New Strategy for a Safer Ontario”. This plan is designed to update the Police Services Act to reflect the changing nature of policing in the 21st century. The plan is focused on collaborative community based policing. Mr. Naqvi and his government envision communities where staff in education, healthcare, social services, and policing work together to effectively mitigate crime. “We need policing to be part of the safety net rather than the whole net itself,” he said. The strategy also includes initiatives to better train officers, strengthen police oversight bodies and provide funding for new policing technologies. Consultations with various stakeholders will occur this fall and winter before legislation is introduced. Absent from Mr. Naqvi’s remarks were mention of a provincial fix to the arbitration process, which many municipalities see as the most important step towards sustainable policing.

 

THE HONOURABLE GLEN MURRAY, MINISTER OF ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE CHANGE

The Honourable Glen Murray, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, closed the AMO conference by detailing the drastic effects climate change is having, and will continue to have on our communities. “There is no subject in which there has been a larger global investment in research to try to understand what is happening to our planet, our communities, our oceans, and our air.” Understanding the environmental changes taking place allows us to alter the way we live, do business, and what our communities look like for the purposes of adaptation. 

FURTHER READING

Climate Change now a High Priority as Arctic Council Chairmanship passes from Canada to the US
Learn about the impact changes to our Arctic climate will have on communities around the world.  

Average temperatures will increase by an average of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius within the century, a pace of change that is beyond the level of most species’ ability to adapt and survive. While the outlook is bleak at present, local leaders have the opportunity to implement sustainable practices. The Minister emphasized the need to use resources more productively, and outlined the province’s work to improve waste diversion practices. Working with industry to create a circular economy to repurpose key materials, like aluminum, will greatly enhance productivity, which in turn translates into economic growth. A little innovative and mindful action can go a long way.