Municipalities often least responsive to meeting citizen needs

There are lots of problems in our cities that cities can't solve alone

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TORONTO, ON Jul 16, 2015/ Troy Media/ – There’s a reason why Ottawa and the provinces seem to be “downloading” responsibilities to lower levels of government – mainly cities. It’s partly to get off the hook themselves, and it’s partly that local government is supposedly the closest to its citizens and might know best how to deal with a range of issues.


The legal justification starts with the word “subsidiarity.” This is a notion recognised by the Supreme Court, and means that “law-making and implementation are often best achieved at a level of government that is not only effective, but also closest to the citizens affected and thus most responsive to their needs, to local distinctiveness and to population diversity.”

This court opinion needs discussing.

  1. The court has only said that it’s “often” not always the case that law-making and implementation are best achieved at the local level. “Often” might be 20 per cent of the time.
  2. The court says that the best level of government in this case is “effective.” But is this how we can best describe our cities? How about the double-digit percentages of water leaking out of most of our cities’ water pipes, infrastructure in Montreal, corruption, lack of affordable housing, and poor transport? I’d like to hear the case made that our civic governments are “effective.”
  3. The court also says the most appropriate level of government is one that is “closest to the citizens.” How about taking an informal poll among your friends. Who can name a few federal ministers, provincial leaders and then, how about municipal politicians? Most of us know our Mayor, but who can name several councillors? I’d like to see if there’s any data to support the assertion that cities are “closest to the citizens.”
  4. The court seems to say that if (or because) cities are closest to the citizens, cities are “thus” most responsive to their needs. Proximity is empathy, it seems. Are cities really more responsive than provinces or Ottawa?
  5. It may be that cities are most responsive to “local distinctiveness and to population diversity” but is this a good thing? We’re in a federation where certain rights are supposed to be universal among our citizens. Is there some way of picking up garbage in Surrey that’s so different than in Shubenacadie that we need to take into account diversity and distinctiveness? How about water, sewage, policing and other municipal services?

In fact, the word “diversity” was used by 1964 Republican nominee Barry Goldwater as a code word for states’ rights, which are code words for exclusionary practices.

We have lots of problems in our cities that cities can’t solve. Provincial governments wrote and passed the municipal acts and planning acts under which cities operate. The federal government can transfer money and do a lot of what it pleases, even in areas of provincial authority. We have provincial ministries of transportation and poor transportation. We have provincial and federal ministries of health, and health challenges. We have federal and provincial ministries of immigration, trade and economic development, and yet we have cities trying to address serious problems in these areas of jobs and settlement.

Cities need help in meeting citizen needs and no court ruling will change that. No downloading will help. Provinces and the federal government need to pull their fair share of weight in municipal issues.

Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He loves cities and his next book will be titled Safe Cities.

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