Consider This
Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Political vision blurred

First published:
August 1, 2001

Municipal leaders in Port Hope and Cobourg are giving taxpayer a good show by holding joint meetings since coming to power. The first of these meetings was held in January, just after the election. Then the next meeting took place in early July. The idea behind the meetings is simple – to enable politicians to become better aquatinted and to identify common interests. Policing, fireworks and bulk purchasing have been discussed.

“We have always talked,” said Port Hope Mayor Rick Austin during a recent interview. “If you were to believe some people, you would think we hated each other.”

Not a chance, he adds. In fact, he worked in Cobourg for 15 years. Most residents don’t hold a grudge against Cobourg. The loss of the hospital didn’t exactly strengthen relations, he explained. But the bitterness over the loss of Port Hope hospital is in the past, he said.

The joint meetings are just information sharing sessions. There are plenty of common issues facing municipalities and, heck, it is just a good idea to get together and talk.

Cobourg Mayor Peter Delanty agrees the meetings are a way to look at various issues and see where there is common ground. He says there are political, social, health, education and economic reasons for doing this.

But there is a big difference between the two municipalities when it comes to their ultimate objective for holding these joint meetings – Delanty wants to see an amalgamated West Northumberland with Port Hope, Hamilton Township and Cobourg.

“I know Peter wants to see a West Northumberland. I don’t,” Austin says bluntly.

There is nothing to be lost by saying this. Austin’s position plays well with the Port Hope electorate, who are on the verge of building a medieval wall around the city, complete with moat. Having only just amalgamated with Hope Township, there is lots of internal matters that are filling the politician’s plate. Policing is still an outstanding issue. There is also a growth study underway and a new official plan to be developed. A new economic development officer has been hired. There is little economic pressure on the town with all the money coming from the sale of the public utility and the compensation for radioactive waste.

But for Delanty, West Northumberland is a bit more front and centre.

“I think about it a lot,” he said in an interview.

No wonder since it was a major plank in his election platform. There is plenty of redundancy, cost inefficiency and overcapacity. The Cobourg police force alone could step in and serve the entire county in a hare’s breath. Then there are the duplicated services like fire protection, economic development and tourism. The list is long. As taxpayers we are paying twice and three times in some cases for the same services.

Amalgamation is not a new issue. Former mayors Angus Read and Joan Chalovich were unable to succeed and it was a major blight on their respective records in office.

But Delanty says he is different. He has a plan. As the province continues to download services, the economic pressure will build. And, following the last round of amalgamations, there are also fewer politicians to deal with when it comes to selling the idea.

“It must be perceived as an equal partnership,” he explains. “And not every mayor has said we have to develop our region.”

Regional government has been around since the mid-1970s when Durham left. It has been rejected countless times by a succession of local politicians.

This regional approach will take a Herculean effort before the end of the current municipal term in office. Delanty’s goal is to have some kind of service sharing agreement in place by the next election and build from there. And with the current political climate in Port Hope, that will be an accomplishment.

But here is where taxpayers should be wary. While the goals may be noble for a host of excellent reasons, these joint meeting are really a distraction. In fact, it shouldn’t even involve the full council. These dinners are more social occasions than business. And as taxpayers, there is not very much value in having 10 politicians sit around a table, eating good food and chatting. If this is so important, sit down and negotiate. Let’s get some tangible results for our money.

Which bring us to the next point. Perception is more important than results. It provides everyone with a nice photo opportunity and as long as they come out of these meetings with some tidbit they can throw to the public to make it look like the process is moving forward, all the better.

But let’s not spin our wheels. There are lots of important issues at home to worry about and deserve the full attention of the respective councils

Frankly, Cobourg residents should be demanding a cooling off period, especially since Port Hope is so busy completing its own amalgamation and its council is clearly not interested in the creation of West Northumberland.

Meanwhile, Cobourg council should be tackling some really tough issues like big box stores or the lack of social housing in town or domestic violence or some kind of youth initiative that truly engages our  young people or helping small business to develop and thrive in our community.

Issues like smoking in restaurants, making our gateways pretty, resurrecting the contentious parking issues, among others are minor (and unnecessarily cause division) compared to some of the long-term, deeper, more complex issues facing Cobourg. We would be far better served and our tax dollars would be better spent if politicians would focus on the tough stuff first.

Both councils seem to like the idea of having a vision. Maybe they should have the prescription on their glasses changed.

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