Can You Close Down City Hall?

Could we see authorities and responsibilities stripped away from municipal governments due to ineffectiveness? That's certainly possible, although it's difficult to make any predictions. But heck, let's speculate.

By Mark Robbins
Published July 27, 2017

It's been uttered all across the city of Hamilton, perhaps with increasing frequency: Those fat-cats in City Hall are doing such a bad job, we should just close down the whole thing!

Now I personally think this idea is preposterous. All aggravations aside, City Hall does a better job than most people give it credit for. It's also a dangerous impulse to try and hit the "delete" button every time an institution is found to have blemishes. That's not the path to better government.

But more interesting than exploring the impulse to "tear it all down" is to ask whether that is even technically possible.

To be clear, I am not advocating any course of action here. Rather, I am looking to answer the hypothetical question of whether it is possible to dissolve a municipal government in response to ineffectiveness. If it is possible, what would doing this look like?

Dissolve a Municipality

Starting with the basics, is it possible to dissolve a municipality? The answer is a resounding "yes". The continued existence of the Federal and Provincial governments is Constitutionally guaranteed, but the existence of municipal government is not. Municipal governments are a creation of the Province and exist at the provincial government's discretion.

A second test would be to see if there is precedent for this: has a municipal government ever been dissolved? The answer, again, is a clear "yes". In fact, municipal governments are dissolved all the time. The amalgamation movement in the 1990s was underpinned by the province deciding to dissolve many small municipalities and to create new larger ones instead.

Ultimately, if a provincial government decides that it is in the best interests of those it represents to abolish a municipal government, it has every right to do this. To be fair, though, this amalgamation scenario is somewhat different than completely dissolving a municipal government and not replacing it with something else.

In a true dissolution scenario, there would be no municipal government left and the duties once performed by the municipality would have to be absorbed by the provincial government. Has this situation ever happened? Not for a major city, at least not to my knowledge, but is this situation would seem to be technically possible.

(I think it's sensible to assume that this situation has occurred for "ghost towns" or communities which once had a municipal government but suffered a population loss so significant that it no longer was reasonable to sustain a municipal government. This is, of course, very different from the situation under discussion.)

The province has the residual right to dissolve municipal government, and the responsibility to ensure these services are provided to its citizens. From a legal standpoint, the province has effectively subcontracted some of its responsibilities to the municipal government. The province thus could conceivably dissolve a municipal government and step in to perform all of its former functions directly. The province has both the technical capacity to absorb municipal functions and the legal responsibility to ensure minimum levels of services.

Reduced Authority and Responsibility

Does this mean that the province of Ontario could conceivably decide to abolish an ineffective municipality and instead provide the services of the former municipality directly? Yes, technically, but it's in my opinion it's extremely unlikely this would ever happen.

A municipality being dissolved as punishment for ineffectiveness is a highly abstract and remote possibility. Rather than dissolving a municipality outright, we could instead see a peeling-back of a municipality's authority in spheres of activity where it has proven especially inept.

Unlike total dissolution, this more selective dissolution is both technically possible and has ample precedent. The most famous example is from the 1930s when the province stripped the municipalities of their ability to issue bonds and borrow money on the open market because of widespread mismanagement.

Due to municipal over-borrowing during the Great Depression, there were serious risks of widespread insolvency that threatened the financial status of the entire province. When the province became aware of the extent of municipal liabilities it had to support, it curtailed the municipal government's right to attract finances.

To this day, Ontario's municipalities are forbidden to play in financial markets and must go to the province to fund large projects. Although in Ontario we take it for granted that municipalities cannot freely borrow, many American municipalities, by contrast, still have this right.

Public Transit

Could we see authorities and responsibilities stripped away from municipal governments due to ineffectiveness? That's certainly possible, although it's difficult to make any predictions. But heck, let's speculate.

If the province were to snatch one responsibility away from municipal governments, my bet is that it would be management of public transit. Since amalgamation in the 1990s, Ontario municipalities have made disappointing progress on transit, with our dear Hamilton City Hall having been especially noteworthy.

The light rail transit (LRT) deal Ontario offered Hamilton was wrapped up with a pretty bow and yet somehow the City continues to struggle with a program designed to be an easy win. Forgetting for a moment whether you personally want LRT in Hamilton or not, the fact that a decision cannot be made or implemented is a sign of a deeper governance problem. Queen's Park, for one, has taken notice.

Could the province muscle in and strip transit from the city of Hamilton's mandate? Oh yeah. In fact, the province seems to have the appetite for this.

Metrolinx (Go Transit) currently operates more train terminals in Hamilton than the municipal government. Metrolinx is also increasing the amount of general transit capacity it offers in Hamilton, while the municipality is walking back many of its transit services.

At the recent Bay Area Economic Summit, one presenter even called for Metrolinx to absorb municipal transit functions across all the municipalities of the GTHA. None of this is happening tomorrow, and it should be said this exact was proposal from civil society not government, but it does address the larger sentiment out there of wanting to "close it all down" after a disaster like the ongoing LRT debates.

All that to is say that Hamilton City Hall will probably never be dissolved for ineffectiveness, but at this rate it might lose a few floors of office space.

Mark Robbins is a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and a proud resident of downtown Hamilton. You can follow him on Twitter @RoboRobbins.


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By RobF (registered) | Posted July 27, 2017 at 12:08:44

In theory, the province can do whatever it wishes with regard to local (i.e. municipal) government. In practice, however, any change to local government or a particular municipal corporation is subject to two considerations: what will be the political consequences, and what are we hoping to achieve via a restructuring?

To have Metrolinx absorb all transit functions in the GTHA we'd probably have to experience the same kind of process that took place in 1950-51 over amalgamation that resulted in a two-tier metropolitan system of government in Toronto. I don't see Hamilton being at the forefront of that, though. We'd be a smaller player in the grand scheme of things. And your point about Metrolinx increasing its role in transit provision in Hamilton, while the municipality stands-still or retreats is true.

The real fight would be between the City of Toronto, the TTC, and the Province ... that is quite a different situation, because Metrolinx brings commuters into Toronto, especially into the downtown core and CBD (that provides an implicit subsidy to the tax base of Toronto), while the TTC moves people around within the City (which the local tax base subsidizes). In a fight over who controls transit in Toronto the province has the legislative power to do what it wants, but in terms of number of passengers the TTC is still considerably larger than Metrolinx, so it would be a reverse take-over. That comes with risks to the province: you break it, you own it (politically and financially) would then apply. In my view, things would have to be pretty dysfunctional for any provincial government to want to take that on without significant restructuring of Metrolinx itself to make it more responsive to local stakeholders.

I'd look to BC/Metro Vancouver and Translink to see the form it might take ... and I'm tempted to call that an improvement, but you'd need to look more closely at it in operation to see that it might be better, but its no panacea for the sort of political and cultural divide on automobility that underpins our dysfunction in Hamilton, re: LRT.

Comment edited by RobF on 2017-07-27 12:11:43

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By RoboRobbins (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2017 at 12:23:35 in reply to Comment 121761

All good points, especially about the potential for a reverse takeover of Metrolinx by the TTC. Thanks for contributing!

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted July 27, 2017 at 12:26:51

There is a provincial law that for the life of me I can't remember the name of but forces the Province to make sure that there is a working alternative for cancelled municipal services. It doesn't necessarily mean that the new alternative has to even be government run but it does say that it must be able to perform the service with some ability of competence comparable to the former service.

My 4th year senior research project form my undergrad Urban Planning Degree was the creation of a regional or super regional transit service around the entire Golden Horseshoe Region not just the GTA. It could be run by a special purpose body which had a region wide governance ability or was run by the Province as a separate agency. A few had done the subject before but I was the first one at the time, that tried to figure out how you would actually do it.

Unfortunately, most super regional transit services in North America have been problematic because one or even several major structural planks in their operational plans was never or could never be politically implemented. Thus these agencies start and continue to run underfunded and or without real authority to act fully in their needed capacity by accident or design. Therefore transit services suffer continually. The MBTA around Boston is a fantastic example of this, never given enough funding because one of the Bills that would have provided most of the operational funding for it was killed in the state assembly early in the agency's history and a replacement funding plan through a sales tax was defeated by voters in the state elections. The MBTA was also never given the full authority over transit planning and operational implementation so it must continually negotiate for many of its larger projects with local, county and state governments.

Taking over for municipal transit from underperforming and underfunded municipal operations can also be a complex logistical nightmare. For example, the creation of York Region Transit was difficult because the 5 municipal services it took over from were so purposely underfunded, understaffed and underequipped that the first 2 years were really needed for the companies that run the separate transit zones in York Region for the new Regional York Region Transit Agency, buy equipment needed for basic operations. Things like tools and maintenance equipment for mechanics proper facilities for drivers, modern radio and communication equipment that was universally functional across the entire York Region System.

2 of the 5 previous municipal transit systems in York Region had private companies running them. YRT was surprised to find out that nearly all the drivers equipment including uniforms were owned by the companies not the municipality. The garages, maintenance staff and maintenance equipment were not municipally owned. In fact, the only thing the Town of Newmarket owned from its former Transit Service were the buses themselves, everything else including the drivers hand held ticket punchers, belonged to Laidlaw!

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By RoboRobbins (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2017 at 07:21:44 in reply to Comment 121763

Another very interesting comment. Was the key element tripping things up the lack of funding? There seems to be some appetite for transit development at the moment. Although thats not permanent, could it be enough to tip the scales? Or are you seeing this more as a problem of scale that has no clear solution except to avoid such a large transit service corporation in favour of several smaller ones?

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By RobF (registered) | Posted July 29, 2017 at 13:29:06 in reply to Comment 121762

I should point out it is helpful to view LRT investments in this light ... as these are provincial/Metrolinx assets they give the province an important bridgehead in Toronto in terms of moving people within the City on transit. In Hamilton, the LRT will replace one of our major bus routes and will give Metrolinx a say in a much larger slice of the ridership pie ... only the #2 Barton bus is similar, from what I know, in terms of ridership to the King-Main corridor express bus.

Comment edited by RobF on 2017-07-29 13:34:24

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted July 29, 2017 at 19:52:52 in reply to Comment 121768

As far as Hamilton is concerned, I don't see the issue at its most fundamental form as a issue of funding. Funding or lack of funding is merely a symptom of the real issues. The people who control Hamilton's council don't see transit as a necessary thing but as a way to transport old and poor people. At their core the people who form the majority of Hamilton council still look at public transit as a service for people who don't, won't or can't drive. This is combined with a view that any service that doesn't try to make profit is something that needs to be limited, to save precious tax payers dollars.

Don't get me wrong, having a council that is making sure city funding is not fundamentally wasted is a good thing but, the focus that every service should be profitable or should attempt to e run like a business is not only short sighted but fundamentally flawed, especially when dealing government services. Lastly, is the fractured nature of support on issues between urban and suburban members of council as well as the fractured nature of support between rural vs. city issues.

These fundamental issues or basic vision issues of government services is political(left vs. right), age related (old vs. young and their differences in outlook around what a city is) and maintaining vs. changing (ability to accept new ideas and conditions or managing and keeping everything running well but not fundamentally changing how things are done).

The majority of council's lack of interest on changing how transit is funded (choosing to end or not end area rating) is an outgrowth of these fundamental views of how things like transit are seen as to properly function.

Large versus small transit operating organizations, large scale versus small scale organizations isn't really the problem. Both can be both good or bad I have seen great versions of both and I have seen bad examples as well. Unfortunately bad seems to outnumber good most often. The real issue is how the organization functions inside the regulatory environment it must operate in. Considering how its funded and the many hurdles its own council puts in front of it, the H.S.R. is actually pretty effective. When you break down the measures of performance on a per capita or per hour basis, the HSR does fairly well against much better funded agencies in Ontario.

The long term problem of the H.S.R. is not one of LRT or no LRT or even rapid transit of some kind versus no rapid transit. Its the continual lack of vision in Hamilton's Council and its senior level of government.

For example, the TTC in Toronto has many rapid transit projects on the go and in the planning stages but as someone who has closely watched the TTC for a long time (the last 30-35 years) its been very encouraging for the last 15 or so. Have they made operational errors, oh yes some big ones even. But they have had an enormous growth in ridership especially in the last 11-12 years, without expanding their rapid transit mileage at all. They did this by fundamentally changing the focus and scope of their service. They first instituted a goal of increasing ridership by 150 million passengers per year versus their 2002 numbers. Then realized how to do this without spending billions on new rapid transit lines. 1. They could only increase ridership in the Monday-Friday peak periods by building rapid new transit lines, the province is willing to help but it has taken a lot time and a lot of money. They knew this going in that, it would be 2 decades of constant catch up building before ridership in the peak periods could build enough new capacity that would start seeing increases in ridership. 2. They made the realization that not everyone works 9-5 anymore in fact, most don't work 9-5 anymore. So provide ever increasing levels of service during mid day and evening hours during the week, especially in places that are areas where very large numbers of people are working shiftwork (business parks, entertainment districts, retail concentrations and factories). Maintaining and increasing services to Universities and Community Colleges goes without saying. 3. Weekends are also major work periods and very important non work days for getting things done outside of work. Imagine my surprise when I could take a Scarborough Rocket Express Bus (while visiting my parents) all day or more importantly, when I really needed to on a Saturday or Sunday morning. 4. They realized this would put an extreme stress on the existing bus/streetcar fleet and its maintenance schedule. This is why so many of Toronto's new rapid transit lines are line haul LRT lines on single route runs. The Finch West LRT, Sheppard East LRT, The Eglinton Ave. Crosstown and its east and west extensions. The planned Jane LRT and Don Mills LRT, the Spadina Subway Extension to York University (not beyond it) and the extension of the Yonge Subway into York Region are all on lines where there are heavy bus concentrations. These new rapid transit lines would not only move a lot more people but would relieve the TTC from most of its heaviest used bus routes thus, easing the strain on the existing fleet and just maybe eventually being the cause to need fewer buses instead of more, further lowering operating costs. The Downtown Relief Line not only relieves subway congestion but reduces the stress on 2 key areas of the streetcar network.

It was Rob Ford and his attempt to build no rapid transit at all, through his subway only construction projects because they didn't interfere with traffic. He claimed it was subways not LRT, being what people really wanted. This would force his vision of a much more spending constrained city just as, the city really needed to spend more not less. The now famous tactic that Trump also used by scaring and isolating large voting blocks, then giving sometimes almost absurd targets for those scared voters to blame worked well.

Even with Ford, the TTC has been able to massively increase transit ridership over the last decade and a half without spending on rapid transit by looking at where and when there was actual demand for service. The ridership numbers at the TTC are still tech technically going up but it has appeared that the ridership increases are now flattening out. They haven't gone down but they are flattening out!

In comparison, Hamilton's Plan for the H.S.R. that was shopped around a few years ago by the anti-LRT people on council for $300 Million more in provincial funding was a poorly coordinated and thought out plan to improve surface transit. The fact that the city wasn't going to even try to remotely fund this by actually spending more on transit shows how hollow the cries of certain politicians are when they want more H.S.R. service. Let alone dealing with the issue around area rating of transit taxes throughout Hamilton.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted July 30, 2017 at 10:17:08 in reply to Comment 121780

I'm with you on the ridership growth aspect of the TTC story/strategy dating back to the Miller years. That's the challenge for most people looking from the outside in: you tend to miss the crucial link between TTC strategic planning and the political will/conditions to advance plans.

That has definitely been lost in a lot of the public debate about LRT here in Hamilton ... LRT will do three big things: shift and restructure assessment growth; reduce operating costs on the king-main corridor (where passenger rides should increase from intensification); and frees up buses for a ridership growth strategy to increase the viability of other parts of the planned BLAST network.

The political question with a ridership growth strategy is will Council put up the money to subsidize the widening per-trip operating deficit in the short and medium term to make the strategy work.

In Toronto, fare-recovery started off at just over 80 cents per dollar of operating cost and fell to low 70 cent range by the time Miller left office. For those whose focus was purely on cost recovery from the fare-box (mainly non-transit riders and their representatives on Council) this was signal of failure and mismanagement. If you looked at it from a longer-term point-of-view it greatly increased transit's slice of the modal split pie ... in other words the needle was moving in the right direction, and, as you've noted, as LRT and certain subway projects came on-line on major backbone routes the operating costs would fall and cost recovery from fares would improve.

Of course, that latter point misses the political discussion that should take place around how transit is financed ... the TTC has, i think, by far the highest cost recovery from fares of any major transit system in North America. There is still that nagging issue of whether that makes sense given the various subsidies that are embedded in automobility ... unless people still want to argue that motorists pay the full cost of driving.

Comment edited by RobF on 2017-07-30 10:18:30

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted July 30, 2017 at 15:03:08

Oh, TTC fare recovery has bounced between the low to mid 60's and low 80's for the last 40+ years. It used to be that operating costs were pretty solidly covered by fares at 68% and the Metro and Provincial subsidies came in at 16% each. Then the Common Sense Revolution in 1995 came in and the provincial portion was dropped entirely. So fare recovery jumped to 82-84% and almost no money for capital purchases of any kind. I agree things were a little less spend thrift in the Miller years but that was because the province came back on side when it came to the capital funding of transit in the final Harris years and continued to expand in the following Liberal administration. Plus a new equilibrium had been finally reached on capital funding of large projects. Before Premier Harris, 75% of all capital funding was provincial and 25% was the Metro or local level of government. During most of the Harris years there was little capital spending of any kind. By the time the year 2000 rolled around the current 33%,33%,33% split between Local, Provincial, and Federal was becoming common.

Don't worry about the drop in fare recovery down to the low 70's its well the norms of the last 40 years. Looking at it from the other way though, the TTC is much too reliant on the fare box compared to most other transit services, even in Canada. Many other cities like Montreal or Vancouver have a much greater level of support which gives them a lot more financial wiggle room when it comes to reliance on fares as part of operational costs. Even most European cities have less reliance on fares and receive greater levels of support for both operational and capital budgets.

Hamilton must also come to terms with what its BLAST network will really be. If the majority of lines are BRT lines than a very fine line between operational costs and passenger counts has to be established. As I have said before on this website, BRT is not LRT with buses. You can forgive politicians using these phrases and tag lines like, "like rail but cheaper" this but in reality, real BRT lines especially ones that are physically segregated, Ottawa, Mississauga and York Region can have almost as high capital costs as LRT. You must also differentiate between real BRT that has at the least, a majority of its right of way physically segregated from other traffic and the BRT Lite systems that have popped up like Brampton's Zuum system which is really a glorified express bus with nice stations. I put York Region's VIVA system in with real BRT because they had a consistent plan that would convert a majority of their BRT Lite service to an actual BRT system and planned to fund it in a real attempt to build up York region's terrible transit numbers. Real BRT requires a completely different type of operational plan than a LRT line does. The two are just different, especially if you want them to be successful. The higher the amount physical segregation the higher the capital cost. Unfortunately, unlike what a lot BRT supporters believe painted bus lanes just don't have very much capacity. You don't have to be a transport expert to realize this, just have eyes. For 30+ years we have had fully segregated Transitways dumping buses on to a couplet of one way downtown streets with very permanent painted bus lanes and the twice daily effect this has on downtown Ottawa.

One of the problems in Ottawa was we thought it was just easy to add capacity when we needed it with our BRT system. As the system got busier and busier and passenger levels climbed capital costs not only equaled LRT capital costs, it exceeded them. The final straw for the conversion from BRT to LRT in Ottawa was when the expected passenger levels in 2031 required not only a bus tunnel under the downtown with enormous subway or almost mainline railway length passenger platforms (200 metres long in some plans), to handle the 7-8 articulated buses coming in at the same time, it required enormous to existing Transitway Stations (marketing name for our Busway Network) that were already quite large. Combined with a bus fleet that was starting to grow to a point where it was already becoming unaffordable at 1100 buses (in 2009 big for a city of 950,000). The expected fleet in 2031 was going to be somewhere around 1400-1500 not just for Transitway buses but the regular network as well. At some point you have to build expensive BRT rights of way and build up a large fleet. It happens really fast compared to rail based transit which is much more able to absorb new passengers and has a much higher built in passenger capacity than BRT.

Considering Hamilton council's reluctance to just finance Transit in general, I have serious doubts that the present council will even come close to trying to implement the BLAST Network at all. Unless there is a massive change of outlook for the next round political candidates vying for Hamilton Council for the next Municipal election. I had to smile to myself when I read on this website, BRT supporters trumpet a system of express bus lines from the rural areas of Hamilton into downtown similar to what Ottawa has. Then suggesting how useful and cheap this would be compared to a Billion dollar LRT line. It was especially funny because starting in 2011, Ottawa has had to pair down the number of rural express bus routes due to a fare to cost recovery rate of less than 30% on a majority of these lines. Until recently, passengers on all these routes had to pay a premium fare on top of that because it ran outside the transit area and thus the subsidy from the province could not be applied to it. recently these all premium express bus fares were cancelled. To cover all these extra costs the majority of Ottawa's passengers had a 5% fare increase every year since 2014. O.C. Transpo's cost recovery is around 52%-54% this year. Given these financial realities I had to chuckle when I read BRT supporters use the word cheap and rural or just single seat to downtown suburban express routes in the same sentence.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted August 01, 2017 at 11:02:17 in reply to Comment 121782

I don't disagree with any of your observations and analysis and I certainly hear you on the practical operational side of this ... very few people have such detailed knowledge of it. One of the frustrations I have in Hamilton is the continual need to address bat-*&#! crazy stuff that actually takes us further and further from high-quality dialogue on matters like this.

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By VivSaunders (registered) | Posted August 02, 2017 at 07:40:04

@Haveacow In regards to your comment " because it ran outside the transit area and thus the subsidy from the province could not be applied to it". What exactly does that refer to? Is it the provincial/federal gas tax subsidy or something else? I ask because Hamilton has a few HSR routes that run outside of our own city's Transit Boundary. They run in the City of Burlington's transit boundary. Is it possible we're losing out on subsidies in this case?

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted August 02, 2017 at 13:33:28

In both Ontario and Quebec cities, (I'm not sure about other provinces) transit systems receive provincial operating subsidies for their transit systems. Like all subsidies there are conditions applied to them. In Ontario each city has a transit service envelope or more simply, a legally defined area that each city's transit service operates in. If that city wants to run services outside that area for any reason, it can't apply those provincially supplied subsidies to the portion of the route operating outside of the transit envelope or area. The route must pay for its self completely through fares or only the local transit subsidies can be applied to it. Sometimes depending on the legislation attached to the specific transit agency and grant program, may even forbid local subsidies applied to routes operating outside of their transit agency.

Each different subsidy program is different and has different conditions applied to them, whether it is the provincial or federal gas taxes, basic operating grants or special one time grants. You have to look at the specifics of each grant program and there are many and you have to have good people who now how to stretch the most out of each transit system's routes. This is where good/clever route design can not only be a great passenger attractor but also a well financeable route to.

Yes @VivSaunders the H.S.R. may be possibly loosing out on money but, this is where it can get really complicated. Some municipalities have transit operating agreements with neighboring municipalities for certain routes which enter another municipality's transit operating area. This agreement may have specific conditions and requirements that each municipality is responsible for. Since each agreement is different conditions can vary wildly between even neighboring groups of municipalities. I don't know the conditions for the routes you are talking about and it may be difficult to get them but, I guarantee you they are there. Especially, if the routes have been doing this for decades or more. Some are simple agreements and some are very complicated. What's funny is that, some of these agreements have been going on for so long I bet you everyone involved with them, don't know all the details themselves.

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