TORONTO — Municipalities should be allowed to decide how best to handle their own regional affairs, the Ontario government said Friday as it assured local leaders it was no longer considering forced amalgamations.

Steve Clark, the province’s minister of municipal affairs, said the results of a review that studied governance structures in 82 of Ontario’s 444 municipalities concluded that top-down approaches were not effective.

Clark said in light of the findings, the Progressive Conservatives were bolstering local governments by offering a total of $143 million for all municipalities.

“The government heard that local communities should decide what is best for them in terms of governance, decision-making and service delivery,” Clark said in a statement. “After careful consideration of the feedback we heard through the course of the review, our government stands firm in its commitment to partnering with municipalities without pursuing a top-down approach. We will provide municipalities with the resources to support local decision-making.”

Ontario launched the review in January, saying at the time that it was open to the idea of exploring amalgamations and studying the effectiveness of two-tier government.

The review was led by Michael Fenn, a deputy minister and founding CEO of regional transportation agency Metrolinx, and Ken Seiling, who recently retired as Waterloo Region chair. They were tasked with studying a number of municipalities that included the regions of Halton, York, Durham, Waterloo, Niagara, Peel, Muskoka District, Oxford County, the County of Simcoe and their lower-tier municipalities.

Fenn and Seiling’s mandate included examining the ways regional councillors and heads of council get elected or appointed and whether the distribution of councillors represent the residents well. The review also looked for cost-saving opportunities and ways to deliver services more efficiently.

The government did not offer detailed explanations of the review’s findings, but Fenn and Seiling’s conclusions came as welcome news to the body representing the bulk of Ontario’s municipal governments.

“The province has listened to municipalities and concluded that (they) are best positioned to determine their own governance,” the Association of Municipalities of Ontario said in a statement. “Today’s announcement helps reset the provincial-municipal relationship.”

That relationship came under strain last year when Premier Doug Ford announced the province was forcing the City of Toronto to slash its council nearly in half in the middle of a municipal election campaign. Ford also cancelled elections for regional chair positions in Peel, York, Muskoka and Niagara regions, turning the roles back into appointed positions.

The Toronto matter touched off a lengthy court battle that the province ultimately won. 

Word that the government was not planning to take a more active hand in municipal affairs was not welcomed in some quarters.

Mississauga, Ont., Mayor Bonnie Crombie said she was “extremely disappointed” by the government’s decision not to intervene in regional government structures, which sees various municipalities grouped together under one regional government.

“As the sixth-largest city in Canada, and third-largest in Ontario, Mississauga deserves to have a strong voice and have the ability to make decisions on behalf of our residents without the interference of other municipalities,” she said in a statement.

Provincial opposition found fault not with the conclusions, but with the review process itself.

“Ford’s flip-flop on forced amalgamations is welcome, but his efforts to try to force municipalities to do what they always knew was wrong has wasted time, money and energy,” said New Democrat municipal affairs critic Jeff Burch.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2019.

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