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York council rejects MPP’s bill for elected regional chair
Feb. 18, 2016
Lisa Queen

In a 12-5 recorded vote, York regional councillors have voted against Newmarket-Aurora MPP Chris Ballard’s private member’s bill to make the regional chairperson an elected position.

Oddly, they did agree to a review of the region’s governance structures, which will, among other things, look at the manner of choosing the chair, although it’s clear the vast majority prefer the current system of having only mayors and regional councillors select the chair, rather than opening the process up to voters.

Meanwhile, chances are the provincial government will now impose an elected chair on the region when Ballard’s private member’s bill is adopted.

On Wednesday, all parties in the provincial legislature agreed to hold public consultations on the issue on Feb. 24 and March 2.

Ballard has repeatedly urged the region to come up with a made-in-York solution, but warned Queen’s Park is prepared to force an elected chair if councillors would not do it themselves.

After a long debate Thursday, the majority of councillors voted against a motion by Markham Councillor Joe Li and Whitchurch-Stouffville Mayor Justin Altmann to support Ballard’s bill.

The motion was first pitched in November, but had been put off until this week.

In addition to Li and Altmann, Newmarket Regional Councillor John Taylor and Markham councillors Nirmala Armstrong and Jim Jones supported Ballard’s bill.

On the other hand, King Township Mayor Steve Pellegrini, Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti, Markham Councillor Jack Heath, Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua, Vaughan councillors Gino Rosati, Mario Ferri and Michael Di Biase, Richmond Hill Mayor Dave Barrow, Richmond Hill councillors Brenda Hogg and Vito Spatafora and Newmarket Mayor Tony Van Bynen opposed the bill – even though local councils in Newmarket, Aurora, East Gwillimbury, Markham and Whitchurch-Stouffville had passed motions supporting an elected chair.

Georgina Councillor Danny Wheeler has been absent for several weeks due to illness.

Voters deserve the chance to elect the chair, who oversees one of Canada’s fastest growing regions, with a population of almost 1.2 million, Li said.

“Regional chair only requires 0.001 per cent of the population (mayors and regional councillors) to secure the most powerful political position in the York Region government. Citizens of York Region contribute so much of their taxes to the regional level of government and, really, they don’t have a say in how that money is spent unless they (were able to) decide on the platform of the regional chair,” he said.

“There needs to be transparency and accountability for each and every hard-earned tax dollar that the citizens of York contribute.”

The current method of council selecting the chair was established when the region was created in 1971, but times have changed, Jones said.

“Let’s now think of what the region was in 1971. It had a population of just over 200,000 people and very limited responsibility, mostly roads and the direction to create a major servicing scheme to provide water and treat sewage,” he said.

“In (2016), our population is over 1.18 million people, larger than Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland (and) Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and closing in on Manitoba. We still look after roads and wastewater, now it is one of the largest in Canada, but we also are responsible for health and social services, public transportation, public housing, regional planning, waste and policing, plus many others.”

However, other mayors and councillors oppose having an elected chair, saying the current system has served the region well.

Many questioned why Ballard’s bill only applies to York Region, rather than having a standard practice in all municipalities.

Having an elected chair wouldn’t help council move forward any better on the important issues it deals with, said Dawe, who challenged anyone to prove council and the region isn’t transparent and accountable.

The chair should have an extensive background in municipal politics, which happens when mayors and councillors choose the person they want as the region’s top politician, Barrow said.

If the province wants to impose its will by forcing an elected chair on the region, let it go ahead, he added.

Choosing a chair should not be based on a popularity vote or who has the deepest pockets to bankroll a campaign, which could cost in excess of $650,000, Hackson said.

With almost three quarters of eligible voters, the southern three municipalities would have too much power in electing a chair, Quirk said.

“The rest of us don’t even have to bother to show up to vote,” she said.

Where would candidates get the funding to run their campaigns? Heath asked.

“I have a pretty good idea it’s developers,” he said, adding he does not support any move to make the region more powerful at the expense of local municipalities.