Toronto voted on it: Why Electoral Reform is important in York Region too

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Last night the City of Toronto held a number of important votes on democratic reform.

It’s a debate that needs to happen at York Region too.

Newmarket-Aurora MPP Chris Ballard has tabled a private members bill at Queen’s Park calling for the Chair of York Region Council to be elected. This is something that the York Region Taxpayers Coalition supports – but we don’t feel Mr. Ballard’s bill goes far enough. We have written to Mr. Ballard’s office asking that his bill also include the accountability measures that the City of Toronto Act now includes; namely that the City of Toronto must employ an Ombudsman, an Auditor General, and an Integrity Commissioner, including a Code of Conduct and a Lobbyist registry. Currently York Region has none of these things. There really is nowhere for a citizen to go to if someone has a complaint about York Region Government. York Region Taxpayers Coalition believes something should be done about this fact.

Mr. Ballard did not respond to our inquiries himself but through his assistant, who advised that he will not be amending his bill. We have asked to be allowed to speak to the Committee reviewing this private members bill so we can suggest much needed improvements.

Last night, the City of Toronto said no to ranked balloting. The York Region Taxpayers Coalition wants to see ranked balloting in place for the election of the York Region Chair. This is to ensure that the largest municipalities do not overwhelm the northern six municipalities, as the first past the post system would. Under ranked balloting, the successful candidate would have to build a consensus across the region in order to achieve at least 50% of the vote.

The City of Toronto also asked the Province to allow permanent residents (not just Canadian citizens) to vote in municipal elections. As a taxpayer’s group, we also support this measure.

Toronto Council voted in favour of asking the province to restrict third party campaign spending, such as the type of advocacy unions, business groups, and even the York Region Taxpayers Coalition would partake in to encourage voters to pay attention to certain issues. While our group disagrees with any measure that discourages stakeholders from participating in legitimate democratic activities, we will be watching the outcome of this request carefully.

If there is a restriction placed on third party spending, York Region Taxpayers Coalition would support a prohibition on materials sent anonymously. There should be heavy fines put in place to discourage Canada Post or other similar companies from distributing anonymous ads. We are calling on all publishers of election related materials to be identifiable, with heavy fines placed for those who do not comply.

How did York Region Politicians feel about Toronto Ombudsman Fiona Crean’s Visit?

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Last month, The York Region Taxpayer’s Coalition made the news about our push for transparency: http://www.markhamreview.com/More-transparency-wanted

We were thrilled when York Region Government urged their council to appoint an Ombudsman as a result of our advocating: http://www.yorktaxpayer.ca/pressreleases/big-win-for-taxpayers-today-as-york-region-government-staff-recommends-council-adopt-transparency-and-accountability-policies-after-york-region-taxpayers-coalition-proposes-the-idea/

Yesterday, we hosted a free event for our members presenting the City of Toronto Ombudsman, Fiona Crean.

Fiona was gracious to travel to Markham to speak about her role as Ombudsman for Ontario’s capital. Ms. Crean was poignant, articulate, and left no doubt in our minds that she put her job protecting the people as a priority. Our afternoon with Fiona was enormously educational.

Last February, our Toronto chapter hosted the equally gracious and passionate Ombudsman of Ontario Andre Marin, whose recent report exposing Hydro One’s practices illustrated his commitment as the public’s Number One Watchdog.

Fiona reminded us that the role of an Ombudsman was to “protect the citizen,” a principal our Coalition will continue to advocate for.

Our organization sent out email invitations to all members of York Region Council; including those of the local councils that make up the 9 municipalities of York Region.

Not a single elected official replied to our email; in fact, York Region member of Council John Taylor (Newmarket) and Newmarket member of council Jane Twinney, unsubscribed to our event posts almost immediately upon reading and receiving our invitation.

That’s sad, because our event was funded and entirely organized by our volunteers: hard working taxpayers.

Even Fiona made a quip asking where our elected politicians were yesterday.

On the other hand, we were thrilled that York Region Government expressed interest in our event and sent a lovely staff member – who also happened to be genuinely interested in learning about Fiona’s role and how York Region could benefit with her advice.

We’re glad we could make the introduction so that York Region could take up Ms. Crean’s offer and experience to help them implement their own Ombudsman.

Where is the accountability at York Region Government?

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When Toronto Mayor John Tory heard the news that the TTC spending on the new Spadina to Vaughan subway line was out of control, his response was unequivocal.

“We have lurched from one fiasco to another costing taxpayers … tens of millions of dollars,” Mayor Tory told the Toronto Star back in March.

“Accountability, includes people losing their jobs, it includes people being recognized in a positive way who bring projects in on time and budget, and I just don’t think there’s been a lot of attention paid to that over time.”

Meanwhile, back at York Region Council, there was no anger from any member. In fact the entire Council seemed rather nonplussed about York taxpayers being forced to hand over an extra $92 million (estimate) to complete the line.

Rather than talk of firing under achieving staff, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti went out of his way to praise the way York Region had managed this process. In Mayor Scarpitti’s view, the cost over runs were entirely the fault of the TTC.

After a short discussion, York Council voted unanimously to approve the additional spending based on very few answers on what the new money would pay for and even fewer answers about where the Region, (with a public debt approaching $2.7 Billion already) would get this money. Some members of council weren’t even aware our taxes were bailing out Toronto mismanagement.

In 2006, planners estimated it would cost $1.5 Billion to build the 8 km extension from Downsview Station to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. The extension was supposed to be complete in time for the Pan Am Games. We now have new estimates of $2.9 billion, and the line is delayed until 2017.

Add this project to the long list of billion dollar scandals that have plagued Ontario over the past decade. While Mayor John Tory seemed to understand taxpayers can no longer afford to foot the bill for government ineptitude, It was unfortunate that York Region Council hasn’t received the same message.

Back in March, members of the York Region Taxpayers Coalition spoke to York Council advocating for the establishment of an Auditor General to report on matters such as this one. We believe that the spending at York Region has been out of control as public debt has now outpaced reserves at the Region.

Without any oversight from an Auditor General, the public has been left in the dark about the money issues that this important level of government is facing. We need to maintain our roads, our policing, our safe water, and other import ant services. But unless a new attitude of accountability is adopted by Chair Wayne Emerson and the rest of Council, we’ll be seeing our region buckle under the immense weight of waste and debt.

Big Win for Taxpayers today as York Region Government staff recommends council adopt “Transparency and Accountability” policies after York Region Taxpayers Coalition Proposes the idea.

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 Last month, we issued a press release asking York Region Council to implement simple initiatives in order to increase transparency and accountability in light of Bill 8. And judging from council members reaction to our suggestions, we gathered they weren’t too impressed with the idea.

But it seems despite Council’s lack of interest with transparency, York Region staff took it upon themselves to recommend a “Transparency and Accountability” initiative that included our suggestions anyways.

“We’re thrilled”, said York Region Taxpayers Coalition president Maddie Di Muccio, “because staff did the right thing. This is a big win for taxpayers. Transparency is a big mandate of this organization.”

The recommendation was based on the province’s new Bill 8, introduced July 2014, that will give provincial Ombudsman Andre Marin more jurisdiction to hold municipalities accountable. Last February, we hosted a successful event featuring Mr. Marin which was attended by many local municipal councillors and staff.

Although the recommendation specifically encouraged the appointment of an Ombudsman, Georgina mayor Margaret Quirk asked for staff to include a Code of Conduct for Council members when she realized none existed.

Richmond Hill’s regional councillor Brenda Hogg made her feelings known when she explained staff’s recommendations to make York Region Council more transparent and accountable for taxpayers would “cost finances, time, and will make work come to a grinding halt.” Hogg went on to say the direction was “an overreaction” and that investigations by an integrity commissioner requested by members of the public would be used “as a political tool.”

York Region Taxpayers Coalition will continue to follow up with staff’s recommendation to implement more transparency and accountability at the Region and we will report back to our members in the fall, when staff’s report is scheduled to be brought to council.

 

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Why was Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti so popular on Twitter today?

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York Region Taxpayers Coalition made our first deputation to York Council this morning to present the following:

• Appoint an Ombudsman to address the complaints of residents and investigate when government policies are not being followed or when services are being denied unfairly.

•  Establish an Integrity Commissioner to develop a Council Code of Conduct and create a lobbyist registry. York Region Council oversees a $2 billion annual budget but has less oversight than most of its member municipalities.

• Appoint an Auditor General to protect public funds against fraud and waste. Part of the Auditor General’s duties would be the creation of a fraud and waste whistle blower hotline to allow York Region
staff and citizens to report instances where public money is not being respected.

We didn’t get to finish the deputation though, because York Region Chair Wayne Emerson interrupted our request for additional time with a resounding “no”, limiting our opportunity to speak on our members’ behalf to a mere 5 minutes.

But Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti did have something to say. He wanted to know about an expense that was approved by the town of Newmarket’s CAO issued last term when York Region Taxpayer Coalition’s president, Maddie Di Muccio, served as a councillor. We’re not sure why Mayor Scarpitti spent over five minutes questioning an expense item  Di Muccio had or why he had so much interest in a municipality that he has no jurisdiction in – especially because in today’s meeting the mayor admitted he didn’t realize his own council was bailing out Toronto’s TTC mismanagement to the tune of $60 million with our tax dollars.

At that same meeting, Mayor Scarpitti, who rarely tweets to his constituents, bizarrely took to his Twitter to attack York Region Taxpayer’s president Maddie Di Muccio. “It was unbecoming and frankly embarrassing that a mayor of York Region’s best cities attacked the integrity of our organization,” said Di Muccio. “Our organization is non partisan and seeks to better government. We already represent thousands of members. It’s disappointing to learn that York Region Council refused to welcome our group – but rather reacted to its formation with great hostility.”

Today’s item discussion in York Region Council bailing out the city of Toronto with your money on TTC cost overruns appeared on a revised agenda after we issued our press release announcing our outrage last week- and our members demanding action as a result of that.

“We are thrilled that after today’s deputation, our members contacted us with great willingness to help. York Region Taxpayer’s Coalition is seeking donations to help restore accountability for our overburdened taxpayers,” said Di Muccio.

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