Written by: David Siegel
“All of Niagara has been played.” Rob Houle’s short and simple tweet is probably one of the most frequently retweeted laments about Niagara these days.
Compared to some of the other municipalities covered in this blog, Niagara isn’t very large, but there is always something interesting happening here so I’m pleased to offer my contribution.
After the October 22 election, the Niagara Regional Council will be composed of the mayors of the 12 area municipalities, 19 other representatives elected directly within the municipalities, and the regional chair. This election would have seen Niagara elect its regional chair for the first time, but the Ford government changed the rules in the middle of the game, so councillors will continue to select the regional chair.
This will be a very interesting election in Niagara. In the previous four years, the Niagara Regional Council has been dominated by a group that has been christened the Conservative cabal. However, the group has now overstepped even the broad boundaries normally set by Niagara voters. Judging from the insurgent candidates’ literature with phrases like ‘Reset the Region’ and ‘Bring honesty, integrity and common sense back’ this could be a difficult year for incumbents.
So, what’s happening?
Many outside of Niagara will be disappointed to learn that Andy Petrowski, who has entertained so many of you with his bible-thumping, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-media posturing has decided not to run for office again. That’s one major embarrassment to Niagara out of the way. However, don’t be disappointed because the fun will continue in other ways.
There could have been a number of issues in this campaign, but the major driver will certainly be the chief administrative officer. (I wrote a book recently about CAOs entitled Leaders in the Shadows. It’s an axiom among CAOs that the only time their name appears in print or in social media is when they’re in trouble. That’s certainly the case here.)
The region appointed a new CAO in 2016. He had been CAO of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority which was having its own problems at the time. It was an interesting appointment in that he had limited municipal experience and the region is a much larger and more complex operation than the conservation authority. (The regional budget is about 100 times larger than the CA’s – $1.1 billion to $12 million.) However, people grow and develop their skills over the years, so good for him.
Fast forward to 2018 and Grant LaFleche of the St Catharines Standard has been running a series of stories alleging that, at the time of the competition, the successful candidate was provided with information about the identity of the other candidates, and the questions that would be asked at the interview. It seems a staff member in the Regional Chair’s office also provided him with assistance about how to respond to the questions.
By the way, rumours about this were on the street at roughly the same time that the competition was taking place. Some people aren’t even competent enough to run a small conspiracy.
The Regional Chair’s “defense” is that this is politically motivated and he doesn’t read the Standard, anyway. For some reason, no one associated with the region has come forward and simply said that the allegations are false.
But wait, the story gets better. When councillors started discussing this matter, they discovered that the chair had extended the CAO’s contract by several years without consulting council.
Wait, there’s still more. While unilaterally extending the contract, the chair also added a provision that the CAO would get a severance package equal to one year’s pay even if he were fired for cause. Staff reportedly told council that it would cost about $1 million to get rid of the CAO.
There seems to be a possibility that the contract extension might be void, but that is a thicket that the newly-elected council will have to deal with. The current council is now a ‘lame duck’ so under Ontario law, it cannot fire anyone.
The Ombudsman is investigating the entire situation, but it is almost certain that the investigation will not be complete until well after next month’s election.
Not surprisingly, this is the major issue in the campaign, which is unfortunate because there are issues related to regional transit, economic development, and some contentious land use decisions that should be discussed.
It seems fairly certain that there will be some new faces around the regional council table after the election. The only question is how thoroughly the new broom will sweep. As we know, the public is not particularly attentive to municipal elections generally, and this is especially the case for elections at the regional level which is seen as a government at some remove from ‘real’ local issues. However, these extraordinary events might have increased the interest in regional affairs.
It would also be unfortunate if voters’ outrage about these events caused them to turf out some of the good councillors who have been trying to handle this properly. There are certainly an inordinate number of candidates for regional office. St Catharines has 23 candidates for six seats including a former MPP and several people who have experience serving on local councils, but want the opportunity to ‘reset the region,’ as one of the candidates promises on her lawn signs.
By the way, the major continuing issue on council’s agenda in recent years has been economic development because no one can figure out why businesses are not clamouring for the opportunity to locate in Niagara. Who would pass up an opportunity to get a front-row seat for this?
David Siegel is Professor of Political Science at Brock University.