Amalgamation Awareness Conference
Saturday, April 27, 2002
Lakeview Banquet Hall    (map)
 
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       Delegations from across Ontario met at the Lakeview Banquet Hall on April 27th for the VOCO Amalgamation Awareness Conference. The conference was planned as a workshop to share advice and experience with other amalgamated municipalities. Three guest speakers were invited: Michael Prue, Municipal affairs critic for the NDP and former mayor of the former city of East York, Joe Cooper "The Watchdog" columnist with the "East York Mirror" and Ruth Cohen, author of "Alien Invasion".

       Mr. Prue and Mr. Cooper both hail from the "former city of East York", now swallowed up by the provincially-enforced megacity of Toronto. When Mr. Prue first became mayor, he told us, East York had a debt of $11 million. During his term, that was whittled down to within one year of elimination - when, out of the blue, he was informed that East York would itself be eliminated. The City of Toronto now has a debt of $1 Billion; East York's portion is about $60 million. Taxes are rising yet services are declining.

       But the biggest loss, he said, was community involvement. "People used to be plugged into the system. Before amalgamation, 350 people served on boards and committees, such as the Safety Council and the Board of Health. Now there are only three people from East York on the boards and committees of the mega-city".

       And why was this done to the taxpayers of Toronto? Mr. Prue quoted Al Leach, the Minister of Municipal Affairs at the time: "because I have to do something".

       Mr. Cooper took up the story of East York, but first gave us some more insight into the reasons why this is happening. Throughout history, he said, consolidation of power has corresponded with corruption. And throughout history, citizens have been fighting it. In the 1700's, Americans defeated an attempt to eliminate the powers of individual states. In Canada's Mackenzie rebellion in the 1800's, towns surrounding Toronto fought against the Family Compact. Twice, in 1923 and in 1951, governments tried and failed to amalgamate Toronto. The 1951 proposal was rejected by the OMB as undemocratic and unworkable. The idea was replaced by the two-tier metro system, which worked well for almost 50 years.

       Mrs. Cohen cited similar examples of failed amalgamations, such as of school boards and hospitals. She described some opposition strategies: the union-sponsored legal challenge to the sale of Ontario Hydro, and the Toronto parents' network which has presented a detailed budget as an alternative to the provincial education funding formula. These, she said are "flowers among the rubble" of the destruction of Ontario institutions.

       VOCO speakers then outlined some of the initiatives their members have undertaken. Audrey Holden explained the significance of the yellow ribbon campaign: "We're waiting for the return of someone we love".

       Belinda Wilson described the town hall meetings held in each of the municipalities last summer, and the two petitions presented to the Ontario Legislature. First, in an attempt to prevent the amalgamation before it happened, Audrey Holden and Lynne Boldt took a 900-signature petition to the Legislature. After the fact, people realized that yes, this can happen, and what it meant to them. The petition to un-do amalgamation has now grown to 11,000 signatures, and has been presented twice in the Legislature, by busloads of angry residents. Also, in case the petition has escaped his attention, VOCO is offering to forward postcards to MPP and current Minister of Municipal Affairs, Mr. Hodgson. Postcards will be available throughout the County, or can be printed from the VOCO website (www.voco.20m.com).

       John Panter then spoke about the VOCO referendum. In the real world, he said, a corporation cannot be dissolved without the consent of its shareholders. Yet this is exactly what happened "in the fantasy world of government": all the incorporated municipalities of Victoria County were dissolved without consulting the taxpayers. VOCO determined to give the people a voice, and held a referendum in each of the former municipalities. More than 6000 people came and cast ballots, 96.5% voting to reverse the amalgamation. But no matter how people voted, the same comment was made over and over again: "thank you for doing this, for giving us a chance to be heard".

       It appears those voices were heard, at least by the provincial Liberal and NDP parties. The NDP policy document recommends that "if communities ...clearly expressed their desire to 'separate' by referendum, their request would be honoured by the Province". And Lynne Boldt read the following excerpt from a letter from Dalton McGuinty: "the Ontario Liberal position is to allow a local referendum when there is a substantial demonstration of public support. ... the petition campaign has clearly met this threshhold. On that basis, I have committed that a Liberal government will ensure a binding referendum is held to allow local citizens to determine whether or not to dismantle the amalgamated city".

       The audience questions and comments that followed made it very clear that both parties will be held to these promises by the voters of Victoria County. The discussion period also raised the obvious questions: how can this be undone, and what would it cost? In answer to the first question, Mr. Cooper cited examples of cities where this has been done, in particular, Indianapolis, once the "shining example" of amalgamation. As for the cost, Mr. Prue replied "Yes it will cost., but it will cost even more if you don't do it You can either pay for service, or for no service". Added Mr. Cooper: "the cost of democracy was paid for in full by those who have fought for it. You can't put a price on democracy".

       In discussions throughout the day delegations traded their stories and ideas. The folks from Walkerton wanted to learn from VOCO's referenda, and have determined to hold one in their community. Bill Higgs, a resident of recently-amalgamated Bayfield, offered this advice to VOCO: First, it is important to be visibly "yea sayers", in the forefront, serving your communities. Similarly, in the fight to replace this system which was forced upon you, you must present viable alternatives. Use the tools at hand. "Know the Municipal Act", he advised, "and know it well". And you must reach out to other communities for help and advice.

       Higgs' final bit of advice "monitor your Council closely, and keep City residents informed of their actions" (we'll send him a Promoter!). He then quoted Judge Robert Jackson: "It is not the function of government to keep the citizens from falling into corruption. It is the function of citizens to keep governments from falling into error"
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