The annual Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference took place in Ottawa last week, with representatives of all 444 Ontario municipalities meeting together to discuss issues of common interest. In addition to the mayors and councillors, a large number of provincial government ministers, in addition to Premier Ford, also attended and there were 900 separate meetings between the parties during the few days of the conference. Delegates were also addressed by provincial party leaders, Andrea Horwath, leader of the NDP, John Fraser, interim leader of the Liberal Party, and Mike Schreiner, leader of the Green Party of Ontario. Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nation was another speaker at the conference, which addressed issues such as Cyber and Climate Change, Innovations in Housing and Homelessness, Property Assessment in Ontario, and literally dozens of other topics.
A Q&A session was held, The Ministers Forum, where the delegates could ask questions of a panel consisting of about two dozen ministers, associate ministers, and junior ministers, who spent more than an hour answering questions from the audience.
The main focus of the public sessions, of course, was the speech by Premier Doug Ford, who spoke for twenty minutes on the many ways in which his government has made life better for municipalities across the province. The Premier emphasised, again and again, that his attitude was to get Queen’s Park out of the way and let municipalities do what they do best:
“Municipalities know how to make every dollar count because you know where it’s needed most. And the solution shouldn’t be imposing one-size-fits-all solutions from Queen’s Park.
The solution is giving municipalities the tools and supports they need to have more flexibility with their budgets. Find savings, drive efficiencies, and modernize service delivery”, said the Premier.
He seemed to acknowledge that his government had been too quick to introduce changes without proper thought or consultation, and announced a number of measures where those changes have been rethought, cuts delayed, and consultation promised:
“We recognize our government moved quickly when we came into office to address our inherited challenges. But we’ve listened to you… There will also be no changes to the structure of the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund for 2020 to provide you with greater certainty in fiscal planning.”
Premier Ford gave a great deal of the credit for the province’s improving relationship with municipalities to Minister of Municipalities and Housing, Steve Clark, M.P.P. As part of the government’s campaign to reduce red tape, he noted that many of the reporting requirements which had been demanded of municipalities in the past, “over 400 to be exact from 16 different ministries”, which he described as a mountain of regulations, had been reduced:
“Through top-notch work led by Minister Clark, we’ve identified 94 reports to be eliminated and 27 reports to be consolidated or simplified. And that’s just the start. We gave municipalities back your voice when it comes to hosting renewable energy projects. Our government scrapped the awful Green Energy Act, one of the worst pieces of legislation ever, that stripped local communities of your voice in these planning decisions.”
There was a very long list of funding allocations mentioned in the Premier’s speech, from infrastructure projects such as hospitals and schools, to $315 million to improve and expand Internet and cell service into more rural and remote communities. He underlined the fact that he, and a number of other members of his government, had experience as municipal mayors and councillors. Steve Clark had been mayor of Brockville, and was one-time head of AMO. He ended his speech with that thought, and an invitation to the AMO delegates to maintain open communications with his government:
“And there are many others on our team who have been in your shoes and who have worked to leave their communities better than they found them. We know the issues you hear from your constituents mean the world to them. I was a Toronto City Councillor for four years myself. We need to put local communities back in the driver’s seat of their own affairs. This is all part of an ongoing conversation between our governments led by Minister Clark and our municipal partners. I encourage you to keep the conversation going.”
We will have further coverage of the AMO 2019 Conference in our next issue.