The city has to move on and as long as Bratina insists on opening old wounds, finding closure will be difficult.
By Zachary Spicer
Published January 09, 2014
Bob Bratina entered Hamilton's 2010 municipal election less than two months before Election Day and didn't have much time to make up ground on his two main opponents, but he found the right wedge issue: de-amalgamation.
Those in the outlying suburbs resented the perceived loss of their communities through amalgamation. They argued that their property taxes went up, while their service levels went down.
Since amalgamation, however, this resentment has slowly subsided. Politically, Hamiltonians began to focus on other issues, but mention amalgamation on the corner of King and Sydenham in downtown Dundas and you may get an earful. Simply put, anger over amalgamation had gone from a raging fire to a smolder over the course of a decade.
Bratina knew that his best hope in making up ground in the 2010 election was to re-ignite this fire. During his campaign launch, Bratina told the assembled crowd that the city's current incarnation was "not working" and that "everyone agrees with that".
De-amalgamation, Bratina argued, was a "possibility" as he promised that he was "going to confront it". He even went so far as to say that de-amalgamation was "absolutely" better than the current system.
Bratina's pledge was vague and bold, but ultimately propelled him to victory. Despite his late start and running against two well-known opponents, Bratina won. He carried six of the seven suburban wards, some by wide margins. Eisenberger even conceded that Bratina's de-amalgamation musings was a major cause of his defeat.
The province quickly tossed cold water on Bratina's pledge, however. Soon after the election, Richard Stromberg, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing stated, "de-amalgamation would require legislative change...it's not permitted under the law". He continued: "what I'd say is it's not a priority for the government".
At this point, other issues - namely the stadium funding fiasco - dominated the city's political agenda. De-amalgamation slipped to the background until yesterday, when Bratina announced that he was holding a "presentation on amalgamation".
With few details, the city's media assembled in the MacNab room of the Sheraton Hotel, awaiting Bratina's next move. You can watch Joey Coleman's video recording of the event:
Bratina introduced Tim Cobban, an assistant professor from the University of Western Ontario, who had come to Hamilton to present his research on amalgamation.
(Full disclosure: Tim Cobban was a professor of mine while I completed my PhD at The University of Western Ontario. He also served as an examiner at my dissertation defense in June 2013.)
Cobban's research asks whether the Common Sense Revolution reduced the size of local government. He examines all amalgamated municipalities across the province. Hamilton is one of the cities included, but it is not the focus of the study.
Cobban's research is solid. From an academic perspective it is incredibly helpful. He has established that the provincial government's consolidation agenda did not result in cost savings or a reduction in the size of local government, as was initially billed.
The question, however, is why Bratina sought it out and why he believed that Cobban's work fulfilled his promise to examine de-amalgamation. The crowd focused on these issues and Hamilton's journalists - primarily Andrew Dreschel and Joey Coleman - hammered away at Bratina's decision. Why are we here? Why now? What does this prove? What does the city do with this?
All good questions, which Bratina fumbled while furiously trying to stick-handle a chorus of criticism from the crowd. He finally conceded that he intends to take Cobban's work to the province in the hopes that it will compel the government to review the city's governance structure.
Such a plan is not only fraught with difficulty; it's also incredibly naïve, primarily because it is not clear why Cobban's work will force such a decision.
As I mentioned, Cobban's research is insightful and joins a chorus of other authors, such as Andrew Sancton from The University of Western Ontario, Enid Slack and Richard Bird from the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance and Jean-Phillipe Meloche and François Vaillancourt of the Université de Montréal, in arguing that amalgamation has failed to produce promised cost savings.
The province of Ontario is aware of this work. They also have a small army of their own public policy experts and economists at Queen's Park who have examined and re-examined the fiscal and political impact of amalgamation. They have seen the research. They remained uncompelled to take action.
This, of course, was not the purpose of Cobban's research. He is not advocating for any particular policy change. He set out to disprove the notion that the Common Sense Revolution created smaller local government in the province. In this task, he succeeded.
By using Cobban's work to pester the province, Bratina is stretching its intention and meaning. The province does not want to seriously consider de-amalgamation, which is understandable. Mike Harris' restructuring program went well beyond Hamilton. Other large cities, such as Toronto, Ottawa and Sudbury, were also consolidated.
In total, the province went from over 800 municipalities prior to Mike Harris' term in office to 444 when he left. Needless to say, these changes were massive. Reversing this would not only be costly and complicated, but also politically painful.
At yesterday's announcement, Bratina's tone towards de-amalgamation also changed. No longer was de-amalgamation "absolutely" better than the status quo. Instead he correctly pointed out that solutions to the city's governance quagmire lay on a spectrum between the status quo and de-amalgamation. This middle ground is some degree of fiscal and political decentralization.
This was the approach taken in Montréal, where borough governments deliver a wide range of local services. It's also an approach already in play in some parts of Hamilton, with the city's experiments with community budgeting.
The solution to Bratina's problems, then, may be right in front of his nose: empower the city's neighbourhoods and allow for greater community decision-making. Such changes would also not require provincial legislative change.
The voters of suburban communities such as Dundas, Ancaster and Flamborough didn't cast their ballots for Bratina in 2010 because they believed that de-amalgamation would be a reality by the end of his term. They voted for him because he acknowledged the current model had problems and showed some interest in doing something about it.
Mentioning "de-amalgamation" was crass politics, but the voters of these communities simply wanted to examine alternative governance models. Bratina still has a chance to do this, but instead he's playing footsies with the prospects of de-amalgamation again.
Bratina's initial pledge to examine de-amalgamation was deliberately misleading, as is his eventual return to the topic. He knows that de-amalgamation is incredibly unlikely, but he insisted on rousing the subject in order to entice suburban votes in 2010.
Now he's doing it again and it's irresponsible. The city has to move on and as long as Bratina insists on opening old wounds, finding closure will be difficult.
The only thing we can take from yesterday's announcement is that when it comes to de-amalgamation, Bratina is making it up as he goes along. The problem is that he is now taking the whole city with him on a very ill-defined journey as he scrambles to meet his poorly conceived 2010 election promise.
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