Incumbent Mayor Fred Eisenberger, a strong supporter of Light Rail Transit (LRT), won re-election by a comfortable margin last month, earning a majority of the vote in 13 of Hamilton’s 15 wards. However, Liberal party organizer Vito Sgro succeeded in focusing the race for Hamilton Mayor on the issue of LRT. His simple “Stop the Train” slogan clearly resonated with a significant portion of the Hamilton population. Since the conclusion of the election, coverage has focused on the divide exposed between downtown and rural Hamilton over LRT, but LRT is only part of the story.
A survey we conducted on behalf of the Beasley Neighbourhood Association (BNA) in September shows that disagreements trace back to when the City of Hamilton was amalgamated with the former municipalities of Ancaster, Stony Creek, Flamborough, Glanbrook and Dundas. Today divisions remain between the old City of Hamilton and the amalgamated suburbs and townships over issues like transit funding, support for affordable housing, and support for low taxes.
Performance ratings of Hamilton City Council help to explain why almost eighteen years after amalgamation a split remains. When survey respondents were asked to rate council performance as a whole, only 20% rated it as good or very good. In contrast, 40% of respondents rated their own local councillors as doing a good or very good job.
Councillors are doing a good job responding to their own constituents’ demands locally, but the conflicting priorities around the Council table result in a perception that Hamilton City Council is ineffective as a whole.
If the incoming City Council, to be sworn-in December 3rd, wants to change this perception there are opportunities to unite all parts of the city without jeopardizing support from their local ward.
First, council can focus on taking action on the areas that were seen as a concern across the city. Public safety and crime, for example, were seen as a priority by 85% of Hamilton residents with no statistical difference noted between geographic areas of the city. Focusing attention on addressing victimization can be a win-win issue.
Part of the answer is better communicating the progress that has already been made within the city. The Crime Severity Index, a statistics Canada’s measure that combines the volume and seriousness of crime, has fallen in Hamilton by 31 points in the last ten years from 89 to 58. The rate also sits below the federal average of 73 and near the provincial average of 55. Promoting the message that we all live in safer communities could go a long way towards addressing public perception and the associated fear of crime.
Council can also ensure the Community Safety and Well Being plans which were recently called for as a part of the Safer Ontario Act are made a high priority. Two neighboring municipalities’ initiatives the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council or Safe Brantford could be looked at as models. These crime prevention programs focus on bringing partners together including, police, social service agencies, housing organizations, health care providers, and city government to proactively address victimization. Council leadership could adapt these models into a program that meets the unique needs of Hamilton.
Finally, council members can focus on taking action in areas where the city is divided by reaching unifying compromises. For example, the survey also revealed that while most Hamiltonians supported taking action on affordable housing, the old City of Hamilton was statistically significantly more likely to support action that requires developers to include affordable units in their new buildings.
As part of its work to preserve family-sized apartment units and keep schools open downtown, the BNA extracted a commitment from the City of Hamilton to conduct a feasibility study of a Family Friendly housing policy. Since the motion was carried at the City’s Planning Committee in October 2017, little has been done to advance this study, which could be used by the City to create its own Inclusionary Zoning policy. Inclusionary zoning is a tool municipalities can adopt to insist on a minimum number of affordable units in each new development, usually between 5 and 15%. By working together, Hamilton’s incoming City Council could be authors of the first such policy in Ontario, and help keep our city affordable for people of all socio-economic backgrounds.
The incoming City Council faces many challenges in its term, like dealing with the affordability crisis, transit service, and trying to keep taxes in check.
But each challenge can also be viewed as an opportunity to bring the cities’ communities together in a shared vision for a prosperous future. The BNA survey suggests that dividing residents with wedge politics can be effective politics, but the election outcome demonstrated that residents are able to put local issues aside to work together on issues that enrich us all.
Anthony Piscitelli is a Conestoga College Professor and Coordinator for the post-graduate Public Service program. Michael Borrelli is the Beasley Neighbourhood Association’s Treasurer. For more details about this study please visit ThreeHundredThirtyEight.com.