The provincial government has hired two advisors to look into the regional government model, and the County of Simcoe is one of nine regional governments that will be under the microscope.
But according to local MPPs, the review will not be as ominous as it sounds.
“I see this as being a collaborative exercise. I’ve talked to some former county members and some current county members and I don’t get the sense that they’re feeling under threat," said Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MPP Doug Downey. "I think it’s a discussion that they’re happy to have. That’s what I’m getting back."
Barrie-Innisfil MPP Andrea Khanjin said it's important to look at the history.
“How the regional municipalities were established goes back to the 1970s. Basically, what Minister (Steve) Clark’s announcement is about is after 50 years, it’s time to consider whether changes are needed in areas where the populations have really grown,” said Khanjin.
According to a Tuesday afternoon release from Clark, the minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the provincial government is moving ahead with a review of regional government by appointing Michael Fenn and Ken Seiling as special advisors.
The advisors will work with the province to explore opportunities to make it easier for residents and businesses to access municipal services, processes to deliver efficient and effective local services that respects taxpayers' money, methods to make municipalities open for business and possibilities to cut red tape and duplication to save costs.
The County of Simcoe is one of the largest counties in Ontario with its population expected to surpass 500,000 residents this year.
The review will also examine Ontario's eight other regional municipalities (Halton, York, Durham, Waterloo, Niagara, Peel, Muskoka District, and Oxford County) and their lower-tier municipalities.
“I think they’re all of a significant size and complexity,” said Downey, an Orillia lawyer and former Orillia city councillor.
“There are several things that the advisors will be asking. They’ll be looking at the way that regional councillors or heads of council get elected or appointed, to see whether it helps to align the lower and upper-tier priorities,” he added.
Simcoe County has 16 lower-tier municipalities and two separated cities, Barrie and Orillia.
“This has been a point of discussion for many years at the county, whether they should have a standalone warden, and whether that should be an elected position, or the current model where they pick among the mayors,” said Downey. “There have been debates over time about whether you get elected directly to a regional government or whether it should be made up of people who are elected in the lower tiers. That’s a debate Simcoe County has been having within itself for some time.
“They’ll also discuss whether the two-tier structures are appropriate for all the municipalities, whether things are aligned properly in terms of who does what,” he added.
Downey noted the review is more about mechanisms and priorities.
“They’ll be looking at delivery (of services). Does it make sense for the taxpayer for us to be doing things the way we’re doing them now?” said Downey. “What I see them doing is aligning the service delivery with the most appropriate provider.”
Khanjin says the review should be taken as a sign that the county is doing things right.
“The reason our (county) was included is because the amount of growth that’s occurring right now,” she said. “I think everybody wants to make sure that while we grow, it’s in a smart way.
“We’re opening up the consultation process to say, ‘Look, how are our different levels of government at the regional level working? Are they working to support economic prosperity and growth? Are they working harder, smarter and more efficiently?” added Khanjin. “Since regional boundaries were established in the 1970s, there hasn’t actually been a review (since) to see, are they working?”
According to County of Simcoe Warden George Cornell, the county welcomes the opportunity to participate in the review.
“We understand (the review) will focus on service delivery, decision-making and governance,” Cornell said Tuesday. “We were pleased to receive a call in advance from Minister Clark and were aware of media reports where in the provincial government had addressed the potential for a review to occur.”
Cornell said that the county is still waiting for details from the province on the structure and scope of the review.
“It’s important that governments at all levels work to provide efficiencies to taxpayers and we view this as part of that process,” said Cornell. “We welcome the opportunity to participate and will provide updates to our member municipalities and residents as we receive more information from the province.”
Local residents and businesses will be consulted in the spring.
Fenn, a deputy minister and founding CEO of regional transportation agency Metrolinx, and Seiling, who recently retired as Waterloo Region chair, are expected to give their recommendations to Clark by early summer.
But according to Downey, even those recommendations won’t be set in stone.
“By then, the minister will receive the recommendations. He could say, ‘We’re not doing any of those.’ There will be a period of evaluation there,” said Downey.