As is often the case in an election year, as the election approaches, key political decisions are often punted to the new council. Sometimes it is done to avoid having to deal with a controversial topic at a time when the electorate is supposed to be paying close attention. But sometimes it is done because the measure being proposed requires more time for study and consideration than remains in the current term. The Bay Observer looked at the unfinished business calendar for Hamilton City Council and came up with a short list of projects that can be expected to surface over the next four years.
This has been a hot potato for Hamilton City Council ever since amalgamation was introduced in 2000. At present Hamilton has 15 wards: 8 that make up the old city of Hamilton and 7 representing the former suburban communities. Depending on the vote of the Mayor, there has been a relative balance between urban and suburban wards. But there is a significant population disparity between the wards. The urban wards represent 220,000 voters, the suburban wards only 145,000. The average urban ward has 7,000 more electors than the average suburban ward. The voting population for individual wards ranges from a high of 41,000 in Ward 8, represented by Scott Duvall, to a low of 12,300 in the Flamborough ward represented by Robert Pasuta. Local activists have forced the issue by collecting 500 signatures on a petition to council to revisit ward boundaries, as is allowed under provincial legislation, and the study will begin next year.
While technically there is no unfinished business action pertaining to LRT, some time in the next term Council will be forced to make a clearer declaration of its intentions; either that or the province will have to clearly state how much or whether it is willing to invest in LRT for Hamilton. The two sides have been playing cat-and-mouse on the issue since 2007. Council’s official position is that it will take LRT only if there is 100 percent provincial funding available; but now there is debate over whether such funding would include the reconstruction of underground water, wastewater and utilities which would be required. LRT proponents argue that the reconstruction work would be required at some point anyway and should not be included in the funding ask. Hamilton already faces a $200 Million annual infrastructure deficit and a massive re-build of underground infrastructure to accommodate LRT could cause the city to significantly increase debt; and could result in shortchanging needed infrastructure work elsewhere in the city. In addition, a number of councillors, have begun to rethink the whole issue in the face of significant public skepticism which emerged during the recent campaign. Recent publicised transit studies have begun to throw cold water on some of the more optimistic claims of LRT as a catalyst for property value increases.
With changes in management at the city Transit Department it will be interesting to see if the disabled transit service DARTS will continue to be under the microscope as much as it has been in recent years. DARTS has undergone a number of performance audits in recent years and depending on whose talking, it either has an outstanding customer satisfaction rating or has an unacceptably high number of user complaints. Between rides and telephone calls the service has about 700,000 customer interactions a year. The last year measured saw 1,500 complaints-working out to a 99.8 percent customer satisfaction level. DARTS supporters say the agency is burdened with a bureaucratic reporting system, where HSR determines service levels and customer eligibility and where DARTS is not allowed to survey customers to determine their needs. DARTS opponents would see more service outsourced to local cab companies who have the ear of several members of council.
Value for Money Review
The Audit and Finance Committee sometime in the coming term will have to decide whether to continue a value-for-money audit pilot project which will end in 2016. The measure was introduced as an alternative to the creation of an independent Auditor-General position which, as in other cities, would operate at arms-length from council. The city audit department, in addition to the value-for-money project audits various city departments and operations on an ongoing basis. Auditor Ann Pekaruk says her department assesses identified risks and draws up a work plan each year based on a priority list. A few years back the department produced an audit that showed waste and cost overruns in a variety of water and wastewater projects.
Employee Attendance Performance Measures
The Council will continue to wrestle with a serious absentee problem in the City workforce. You could run a company with 277 well-paid employees on what the city of Hamilton pays out to hard core users of the city’s sick leave program. The good news is that 74% of city employees don’t phone in sick, or only do so one or two times a year. And 93 Long term disability cases account for 13,400 sick days a year; leaving a hard core group of 1222 employees who collectively ran up roughly 35,000 sick days or 29 days a year each. The city is working on measures to pinpoint the offenders and reduce the abuse of the system.
James Street North mobility hub and Waterfront
With the construction of the James Street North GO station now well underway, the proposed development of Pier 8 and the development of the Barton-Tiffany area, Hamilton’s north end will begin to undergo a gentrification that will change growth and commercial patterns in the central lower city. Detailed plans for the three areas call for a mixture of low rise residential and commercial development, enhanced streetscape amenities and a number of pedestrian-friendly initiatives that are designed to build on the momentum created by the James Street North renaissance. With the increased focus on the James corridor and surrounding areas, there are increasing calls for reconsideration of enhanced BRT along James and even eventually phased LRT to provide frequent shuttle between the bay area, the two GO stations and Hamilton downtown.
Transit on the Mountain
Whatever is ultimately decided regarding rapid transit, the city has already endorsed the Rapid Ready report, which calls for immediate increases in bus transit services, particularly in underserved areas on Hamilton Mountain and into suburban communities. This is being recommended as a precursor to LRT, since Hamilton’s transit usage is still at relatively low levels compared to cities who have LRT. Its expected the bus proposal would cost up to $200 Million, and would result in new transit corridors particularly on the mountain, where on some routes under the so-called BLAST system, the downtown core would be avoided altogether. Council will have to make a formal request of Queens Park for funding for Rapid ready and that might well provide clues as to whether there really is any money for LRT for Hamilton.
Provincial Election reform and the
There are external forces at play which could alter the way Municipal elections are conducted in future, as well as providing another complaint mechanism to the public. Sometime in the current mandate of the Wynne government there will be proposals to review the current Municipal Election Act. Premier Kathleen Wynne has asked Ted McMeekin, her municipal affairs minister, to implement ranked balloting in time for the 2018 municipal elections. He has already made the rounds of several municipalities to discuss the change. Under the system voters would vote for more than one candidate ranking their choice, first, second and third and so on. Candidates with the least votes would drop off the ballot and runoffs would be held until a clear winner was selected. Unanswered are questions like how candidates would be able to afford to conduct multiple campaigns. The plan at present requires the new system to be optional to local councils and it would be hard to see a council changing the system that got them elected unless the province allows for a petition process to force the issue on a ballot.
The final external development that could result in greater transparency at the municipal level is a bill, now before the Ontario Legislature, to allow the Ombudsman to oversee complaints about Municipalities, hospital boards, Childrens’ Aid Societies and the like. The Bill would also expand the number of organizations subject to the Freedom of Information Act.