With a municipal election a little over a year away, it is time for the growing number of people who believe there is something seriously amiss with our municipal government to start organizing an agenda for change. On two files—one with long-term generational implications, the other less so, but nonetheless a source of concern, a number of members of the current council have demonstrated they are not up to the job. On the LRT file, which was opposed by a majority of council, at least three councillors knuckled under to political pressure and voted against their better instincts, and their own public pronouncements. For them it was about political survival, pure and simple, and not what they believed to be in the best interests of the community. Contrast that performance with the image of cancer-stricken octogenarian Senator John McCain getting out of a hospital bed to vote no on repeal of Obamacare, in the face of the censure of almost all of his Republican colleagues. Principled political stands are as rare in Hamilton as the eclipse of the sun that we will experience in a few days.
In the past couple of weeks stories have emerged about the Hamilton Waterfront Trust—that it has lost its charitable status (second time), and more concerning, that it is behind in its property tax payments to the city by $325,000. This comes after the HWT has run up accumulated operating losses of $3 Million over the past several years and is effectively broke. Worse, HWT has embroiled the city in a $5 Million dollar lawsuit that, if it goes the wrong way, will have to be backstopped by Hamilton taxpayers. As is reported elsewhere, the Waterfront Trust has a history from its inception of lack of transparency, questionable financial dealings and a disregard for the rules when it came to building permits, risk management and purchasing policies. Yet, in the face of this dismal track record, successive Hamilton council’s continue to back this organization, which at this point appears to have no obvious reason for continued existence. Arguably if Hamilton Council is unable or unwilling to confront this agency, perhaps a reference to the provincial ombudsman is the only solution. But clearly change is needed.
Municipal elections in Hamilton are reminiscent of the Peanuts cartoon, where every fall Lucy holds the football for Charlie Brown to kick, and every time she pulls the ball back at the last second and Charlie falls on his rear end. And so it is the case with municipal politics where many grumble about the council, but at the end of the day would –be challenger candidates are mostly scattered, underfunded and ill-prepared and as a result turnover is negligible. It is going to be even harder to run against incumbency next year with fundraising and campaigning now deferred until May, thanks to changes in the Elections Act. A possible remedy is for citizens with a true concern for the direction our city is headed to start forming organizations ward by ward now—not waiting until next Labour Day. The current entrenched, councillor-for-life system draws its strength from public apathy. Organization of ward groups can begin with two or three people meeting over coffee, deciding to give their effort some organizational structure, and then reaching out to like-minded friends and neighbours. The key is quiet persistence.
At the risk of incurring howls of outrage a measure that might help speed the pace of renewal would be the institution of severance for defeated or retiring councillors. Right now if a municipal councillor is defeated they are off the payroll immediately. That would be very difficult for someone who has been a councillor for a lengthy period, because it takes time to, first of all, get over the shock and secondly to establish possible employment contacts. Defeated politicians are not necessarily the most attractive of prospects for employers. Such severance benefits are already in place at the federal and provincial levels. An MP who retired or is defeated gets a six month severance, and if they have served for more than six years can receive a pension in lieu of severance. In Ontario, where there is no pension, MPPs with more than eight years’ service receive 18 months’ severance,–those with between four and eight years’ service get a year’s severance and those with under four years’ service get six months. Given that we have legislated severance even in the private sector, albeit not overly generous except in the case of wrongful dismissal; it seems reasonable to provide someone in public office the ability to transition back into employment. The power to institute such severance rests with the local council, however, and few councils have had the nerve to institute severance for themselves fearing the inevitable public backlash. Perhaps it is time to ask the province to make appropriate amendments through the Municipal Act.