By Chad Ingram
Haliburton County councillors should proceed with the commissioning of a third-party governance review for the county and its lower-tier municipalities, but only if the political will exists to actually do something with the results.
Back in February, council instructed staff to perform a shared services review, essentially an inventory of areas where the county and its four lower-tier townships –Dysart et al, Minden Hills, Algonquin Highlands and Highlands East – already collaborate or share resources. This includes things like some joint training, joint tendering on roads materials, cross-border road maintenance agreements, shared software and so forth. A staff report also included suggestions for more formal, larger scale collaborations, such as a countywide building department, or countywide waste contracting.
Last week, councillors received the report and discussed what the next steps should be. There was discussion of, and seemingly quite a bit of support for, hiring a third-party consultant to conduct a review of the structure of the local government. Another staff report outlining a process for conducting that work will come back to council. It is something the county should proceed with, so long as that study doesn’t end up just collecting dust bunnies somewhere.
The prospect of single-tier governance was much discussed during last fall’s municipal election campaign. Certainly there is an appetite for amalgamation among many county residents. That said, there are also those who oppose it. As has been written in this space before, while cost savings may be one reason some residents favour the idea, it is not certain there would be substantial cost savings, and some members of county council certainly contend there would be none.
A more pressing reason for the creation of single-tier is consistent policy and bylaws across the board. Currently, municipal regulations are a hodgepodge in the county, with bylaws and fees varying from lower-tier township to lower-tier township. Establishing consistent policy is undeniably logical.
It is important that any further work on the subject be done by an outside expert – an independent third party. Independence is important because both municipal councillors and staff are too personally vested in potential outcomes. Those outcomes could potentially change the configuration of council, electoral boundaries and the number of overall municipal seats in the county. They could affect staffing levels, and mean reconfigured staffing structures or job losses. As was mentioned at last week’s meeting, in the small community of Haliburton County, councillors often have personal connections to at least some municipal staff somewhere along the line, whether they be neighbours, friends or family. There is too much that is personal, there is too much that is emotional. And that’s why the objectiveness of a third party would be necessary going forward.
A governance review should include widespread public consultation, as well as consultation with the lower-tier councils. However, if this is going to be a situation where years of discussion lead to the commissioning of a study that is then never used, then county councillors shouldn’t bother. They should save their time, our time and everybody’s money.