An Ottawa deputy mayor suggested the province’s municipal leaders were reassured to hear Premier Doug Ford say on Monday that the PC government doesn’t plan to cut the number of seats on their local councils – as it did with Toronto’s.
In a keynote address at the annual conference of the Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO) in Ottawa, Ford told the gathering of mayors and councillors that the size of Toronto’s council was a “unique” situation and he has no intention of tabling additional legislation similar to the Better Local Government Act.
The move came unexpectedly and without public consultation – and the bill was quickly ushered through the provincial legislature. While Ford had previously suggested he wouldn’t touch Ottawa’s council, his comments on Monday were the first time he clearly made that pledge out loud – and to all of the province’s municipalities.
“We’re certainly, I think, calmed a little bit by that,” said Ottawa City Coun. Mark Taylor, who also serves as a board member of the AMO. “It was nice to hear him say that so we could get it out of the way and talk with him and his ministers about all the other issues that are pressing.”
The AMO conference marks the first chance for elected (and aspiring) municipal leaders – many of whom are in campaign mode ahead of this fall’s election – from Ontario’s cities and towns to have face-to-face time with Progressive Conservative ministers and officials.
With many public policy issues on the conference agenda, many municipalities are hoping to score more details on some major changes to key files – including how legal recreational marijuana will be sold, after the government significantly overturned the former Liberal government’s legalization plans.
There are still many unknowns on the cannabis file. Municipalities, for example, have been told they will be able to “opt out” of the new private storefront approach – but they remain unsure if they could opt out and then choose to opt-in down the road.
Taylor told reporters he thinks the new April 1 deadline to license private retail cannabis stores is a “pretty aggressive timeline.”
“Municipalities really don’t have a choice but to meet it, so if the question is, ‘Are we going to meet it effectively?’ I would argue that some municipalities will be better than others at being able to respond when it becomes a reality,” he said.
Another of Ford’s moves over the past two months has been to press pause on the opening of three new temporary overdose-prevention sites in the province, in order to review whether the sites “have merit.”
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said last week she believes there is “contrary evidence” that suggests the sites are not as effective as believed.
Ottawa has a handful of operating supervised injection sites. Taylor said he’s hoping, over the next three days, to get a better idea of how the PC government wants to proceed on that file.
“We still have an opioid problem in this province … we need a response to that from the provincial government,” he said. “I don’t believe, and neither does board of health, that the evidence is in question. We believe that supervised injection sites actually help people, that they actually do save lives. We’ve seen that play out on Ottawa streets.”
“We’re interested in seeing where the province chooses to go with that, but clearly there’s a need and we want to ensure that people get help.”
Taylor said other major issues of interest for Ottawa delegations at the AMO conference include housing affordability, homelessness, transportation and infrastructure.
In his speech, Premier Ford pledged to “work hard” with and consult with Ontario’s municipal governments moving forward. Taylor, who is not running for re-election on Ottawa city council, said he is “encouraged” by how many of Ford’s cabinet ministers are attending the conference this week.
“I think we’re off on a good foot … notwithstanding their actions to date. I think here today, they’re here to listen and I take that as a good sign for the future.”
The AMO conference is taking place at the Shaw Centre in downtown Ottawa until Wednesday afternoon.
The association is a non-profit that represents nearly all of Ontario’s 444 municipalities.
— With files from The Canadian Press
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