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Regional councillors make amalgamation pitch ahead of talks with province

None of the six regional councillors pushing for amalgamation are from Cambridge
Regional councillors Colleen James, Michael Harris and Jim Erb joined fellow councillors Chantal Huinink, Kari Williams and Rob Deutschmann at regional headquarters Wednesday to make the pitch for amalgamation.

Six regional councillors, none of them from Cambridge, will recommend the seven municipalities of Waterloo region merge together to become one big city when a provincial facilitator begins assessing what type of municipal government structure best suits Waterloo region.

The six made the announcement at a press conference at the region's administration complex in Kitchener on Tuesday.

Regional councillors Rob Deutschmann, Chantal Huinink, Michael Harris, Colleen James, Kari Williams, and Jim Erb presented their ideas for regional government reform and a move to a more efficient, unified and easy-to-navigate system.

Conspicuously absent from the panel were Cambridge regional councillors Pam Wolf and Doug Craig, who is a known opponent of amalgamation. Mayors were left out of the discussion, said Deutschmann.

The group's campaign, #strongertogether, comes on the heels of provincial Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark's move to dissolve Peel Region and create the single-tier municipalities of Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon last month. The move came with the promise to assign a facilitator to consider the same here, as well as Niagara, Halton, York, Durham and Simcoe.

In a prepared statement, the group said they want the province to go the opposite route in Waterloo region and believe the only logical way forward is by combining the region's seven municipalities under one government.

"The Region of Waterloo operates upwards of 60 per cent of the services provided to our residents, many of them essential services. This has helped us maintain stronger infrastructure, emergency services, arts and culture, social services, economic development, and transportation including transit," the statement reads.

"Despite this cooperation, we find that our two-tier model of governance is inefficient. To sort out roles staff at the Region and area municipalities spend an inordinate amount of time talking to their colleagues trying to determine that eternal regional question - "Who does what?"

Coun. Colleen James says she's heard the struggles of her constituents in navigating two levels of government and understands the confusion around which municipality provides what municipal service. She believes tax dollars could be saved by merging fire departments and road maintenance, to name two of them.

Coun. Michael Harris said he knows under amalgamation, many of the 59 elected officials that make up the two-tier system of government would be out of a job. But he's okay with that knowing the benefits of having services delivered under one government in a more efficient and streamlined way.

Coun. Chantal Huinink agreed, saying in her first six months as a regional councillor she's been frustrated seeing duplication of services and believes one level of government would reduce the confusion that occurs.

"We must think holistically about our future and not operate in silos," James said. "We are stronger when we operate as one."

She believes a single-tier government for the entire region would create an economic powerhouse, better able to attract investment, encourage the development of affordable housing and provide better representation for the cities and towns within it.

She said it would necessitate a full redesign of council to ensure representation is equitable and fair to each city and township.

Coun. Kari Williams said the region's municipalities are "completely intertwined" now and believes amalgamation would be positive from a social and environmental perspective.

Deutschmann echoed that sentiment, saying a one-city government is the natural evolution of the progression that has already happened and would make the region better able to rise to challenges like homelessness and providing more affordable housing. 

"It has become increasingly evident that municipalities do not have the financial tools to do everything that needs to be done. We need to advocate at the provincial and federal levels for increased support to address our housing, climate, unsheltered crisis, mental health, and addiction challenges. Our advocacy is stronger when we speak as a one larger city. To compete with the big cities across our province, country, and globally, the time is now to become one city."

Asked if the one-city concept is all or nothing in terms of the final outcome, Deutschmann said he believes a Waterloo region without Cambridge wouldn't be as effective and that individual community identities can be retained in the same way that Galt, Hespeler and Preston have retained their own identities over the last 50 years.

Regional councillor Jim Erb, who championed amalgamation for Waterloo region a decade ago as chair of Citizens for Better Government, said he hopes the region isn't being teased again by the province when it comes to indicating the desire and political will to move away from a system that is "outdated," "cumbersome," and "gets in the way of us achieving our true potential."

He said you don't have to look too far back to find proof it isn't working. Look at how long it took the region and its member municipalities to come to a consensus on how to respond to the pandemic, he said.

"The province knows that we are ready for something different."

Sitting in the audience composed mainly of local media, regional councillor Doug Craig said he wasn't happy with the presentation, calling it a "bad start" to a campaign seeking support from constituents.

Craig has been vocally against amalgamation for the better part of two decades and recently told CambridgeToday he was hopeful the idea was off the table after the province moved to dissolve Peel Region and hinted the same fate could be in the cards here.

The former Cambridge mayor believes the city can make a go of it on its own and told the councillors pitching amalgamation that they "insulted a bunch of people in Cambridge" with their opinion that the city wouldn't be able manage as a single tier municipality.

Craig said a good start would have been a presentation of the facts to explain how a new system will work better than what we have now. Instead, he said, they offered a lot of opinions.

He calls Toronto "the crown jewel" example of where amalgamation hasn't worked, citing the mega-city's recent $510 million request to the province to fund its 2023 budget shortfall.

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Doug Coxson

About the Author: Doug Coxson

Doug has been a reporter and editor for more than 25 years, working mainly in Waterloo region and Guelph.
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