CSL budgets modest tax increase

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At last night’s public meeting, Côte Saint-Luc City Council adopted its 2013 budget for local and agglomeration operating expenses.  An average single family home (valued at $470,000) will see a modest increase of $78 in taxes or 1.32 percent, well below the rate of inflation.

The total budget amounts to $65M which breaks down as $37M in local costs and $28M in island wide agglomeration costs.

The City will continue to invest in critical infrastructure (water distribution network, roads, sidewalks, etc.) as well as in rejuvenating its oldest park equipment.

As Councillor responsible for Public Safety I am quite pleased that the city will continue its important investments in this area ensuring top quality volunteer EMS response, the steady expansion of the volunteer Citizens on Patrol as well as Public Security, Emergency Communications and Emergency Preparedness.

Also, the CSL Cycles program will continue to roll out with new bike lanes stretching from Cavendish, along Baily toward the Cote Saint-Luc Shopping Centre, to tie in to the NDG network running up West Broadway.  A new lane will also be painted along Kildare Road from Westminster to Shalom and through Ruth Kovac Park to reach the Cavendish Mall.

Unfortunately, Cote Saint-Luc is obliged to spend about half-a-million dollars on the Montreal Metropolitan Community, an added level of regional government for which we have very little input and see very questionable results.  I concur with the Gazette’s civic affairs columnist Henry Aubin who has argued for years that the Montreal region is overburdened with layers of bureaucracy from multiple transit authorities, government departments and agencies, all adding to our tax burden at one level or another.

Fortunately, with the municipal demergers in 2005, Cote Saint-Luc controls well over half its local taxes and sets priorities locally on services closest to the resident.

Here is a detailed copy of the CSL 2013 budget presentation.

New law imperils English in suburbs

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Henry Aubin: New law imperils English in suburbs

Loss of bilingual status is a devastating blow and a barrier to business


The Marois government’s proposed law to tighten the Charter of the French Language would deal a truly devastating blow to most of the 65 municipalities in Quebec that possess official bilingual status. The bill would strip this designation from a town if fewer than 50 per cent of its residents have English as their mother tongue.

Six of the 12 suburbs on Montreal Island that now offer services in French and English would lose the legal ability to continue to do so in English. They are Côte-St-Luc, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Dorval, Kirkland, Mont-Royal and Senneville. (See table.)

Four other suburbs, whose English mother-tongue residents are steadily declining and now represent less than 55 per cent of the population, are on course to falling under the threshold within a few years. They are Baie d’Urfé, Beaconsfield, Pointe-Claire and Westmount. Hampstead and Montreal West, both of which are near the 60-per-cent mark, are safer ground. (The island’s two remaining suburbs, Montréal-Est and Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, do not have bilingual status.)

Municipalities not on the island would tend to lose their status at a considerably higher rate. Many of these mostly rural towns or villages have aging anglo communities.

(The government would determine whether a city or town is above or below the 50 per cent bar on the basis of Statistic Canada’s census. However, it is unclear how the government would define people with English as their mother tongue. Most people have only one language as their mother tongue, but others list two or even more on the census form, depending the circumstances of their infancy. The table gives figures for both options.)

The proposed law, Bill 14, tabled this week by the minister responsible for language, Diane De Courcy, comes completely out of the blue. It’s been a long time since language has been a notable issue in the island’s suburbs or in the more distant places. You have to wonder what the problem is that De Courcy set out to fix.

To be sure, the presence of English has become a hot political issue, but that controversy has been confined do Montreal’s central core, especially the shopping areas. De Courcy’s measure gives the core a free pass — the bill can’t revoke Montreal’s bilingual status because the city doesn’t have one.

Removing the suburbs’ bilingual standing would also be curious because it would reduce the attractiveness of Montreal for knowledge workers from English-speaking countries. When they move here, these workers often choose to live in a bilingual suburb where — as is only normal — they feel more linguistically hospitable.

The Mercer 2012 Quality of Living Index of cities — an annual ranking to help multinational companies and organizations make decisions — came out the day before De Courcy tabled the bill. It rated Montreal well behind Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto. If the minority government succeeds in making Bill 14 law, it’s not going to help the economy.

Peter Trent, the Westmount mayor and leader of the island’s suburban mayors, is a moderate on language issues. He calls the measure “completely unacceptable” to anglo communities. As well, he notes an additional curiosity about the bill: “It wouldn’t help the cause of preserving French one jot.”

Trent notes a final curiosity about the bill: Those suburbs whose majority of English mother-tongue residents are rapidly shrinking might have no interest in attracting those newcomers who would further dilute the English mother-tongue presence. The law might thus have the perverse effect of making francophones unwelcome.

This measure might make short-term political sense: Riling the anglos is often a surefire way to boost the PQ in anglophobes’ eyes.

But as a step to advance the interests of francophones, the bill shoots itself in the foot. In the end, it would harm everybody.

Read more:http://www.montrealgazette.com/life/Henry+Aubin+imperils+English+suburbs/7669480/story.html#ixzz2EUfHTkUV


Aubin: An eye-opener on what ails the city

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Thanks to the Charbonneau inquiry, we’re waking up to long-ignored corruption. The Merger Delusion has the potential to help open society’s eyes to misplanned government structures. The longer we ignore this reality, the longer Montreal will overspend and drift.

This opinion piece by Gazette columnist Henry Aubin is an excellent overview of Mayor Peter Trent’s just-released book “The Merger Delusion: How Swallowing Its Suburbs Made an Even Bigger Mess of Montreal.” 

Aubin: An eye-opener on what ails the city.

Henry Aubin: Demerger has served suburbs well

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Henry Aubin: Demerger has served suburbs well


Support is growing for the re-consolidation of Montreal: Here’s why doing so makes no sense whatsoever


By HENRY AUBIN, The Gazette February 14, 2012



Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Henry+Aubin+Demerger+served+suburbs+well/6148032/story.html#ixzz1mPbnkkVh


Jean-Paul L’Allier is one of most esteemed figures in urban affairs in Quebec. The stunningly ambitious and beautiful transformation of Quebec City’s old quarter took place largely during his lengthy stint as mayor (1989-2005). He’s Mr. anti-immobilisme.


So it’s interesting to know what he thinks of municipal government in Montreal.


In a speech Sunday at a meeting of Projet Montréal, he said the megacity’s 2006 demerger has “weakened Montreal.” L’Allier, who oversaw the relatively successful merger of Quebec City, says Montreal’s demerger of 15 towns and the simultaneous decentralization of power to the city’s remaining 19 boroughs prevent Montreal Island from bringing all its players (“forces vives”) together. “Some day,” he said, “this must be corrected.”


L’Allier thus lends more respectability to the wacky notion of a forced re-merger. Vision Montréal’s Louise Harel, who designed the original merger when she was municipal affairs minister, adores the idea. A popular La Presse columnist is touting it. I’m also starting to hear ordinary Montrealers scapegoating the demerger for the city’s problems and favouring re-merger.


This reminds me of how the whole merger concept began more than a decade ago. A few politicians spoke up for it; most people paid little attention because the idea seemed preposterous. Then the francophone media embraced the bigger-is-better premise, the politicians got bolder and before you knew it, whamo, it was done.


There was no public debate then. Promoters spewed nonsense (“economies of scale,” “lower taxes”) and refused to respond to fact-based counter-arguments (that have since proven accurate). They dealt with critics by ignoring them.


And that’s what’s happening all over again as the remergerites try to build public support. They deal with contrary arguments by pretending they don’t exist.


I invite these promoters not to hide from such critiques but to address them. Here are some:


–The demerger itself is not a problem. The megacity still claims 87 per cent of the island’s people, and the megacity can impose its will on the remaining 13 per cent when it comes to all intra-municipal matters (police, transit, arteries, fiscal help to poor areas, etc.). Note that not even Jean Drapeau, the most powerful Montreal mayor of our time, had such clout over the entire island.


–Granted, because of the decentralization of power to the boroughs, a mayor of Montreal has less power than his predecessors over the city proper. Borough power has created certain problems not in the public interest (for example, duplicated jobs, policies that are not co-ordinated with neighbouring boroughs). But it has also brought real benefits (citizens have a greater voice, services are better tailored to neighbourhoods’ needs). True reform would entail prudent, nuanced adjustments – not a wholesale return to centralization.


–Don’t blame the immobilisme on the demerger or on decentralization. The central city has had its hand in virtually all the major projects that have been stopped or delayed: the Casino, Griffintown, the extension of Cavendish Blvd., the covering of the Ville Marie Expressway, the modernizing of Notre Dame St.


–Empowered boroughs and demerged towns have almost nothing to do with the scandals staining Montreal. The waterworks contract, the SHDM mess, city hall’s roof and the auditor-general’s emails all reflect on the central city. That’s where the main rot is.


–The megacity’s first four years – that is, the time before the demerger – were no Golden Age. Operating expenses grew by 16.3 per cent, 2½ times the inflation rate. Real World 101: Units of governance get more inefficient the bigger they are. Demerged suburbs are using small size to make economies. Why stop them?


–What people expect most from municipal government is decent services. Angus Reid polls have shown that residents of demerged suburbs are consistently happier with their services than are residents of areas that were merged into Montreal. That’s no accident: Small units of government not only deliver services more cheaply, but better, too. They have closer supervision.


The case could be made that many people might gain if Montreal were to allow a further demerger.


That would make for a stimulating debate.


But we’ll never see one, not so long as serious, thoughtful deliberation over Montreal’s governance is taboo.




© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette



Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Henry+Aubin+Demerger+served+suburbs+well/6148032/story.html#ixzz1mPbdN1oy

Henry Aubin: Loud silence on merger milestone


Another brilliant column by the Gazette’s Henry Aubin (link below) who has been on the case of municipal mergers and other government blunders affecting our cities.  Aubin wrote about the mergers well before they took place 10 years ago and predicted what a colossal mistake this would be.  He cited examples from across North America and Europe.

This week marks 10 years since this ill-advised event took effect.  Since then we have seen Montreal costs run amuck and the sucking of local/suburban city taxes to feed the insatiable centre city.

We lost our local Fire Department that served our community well in two languages, conducted hundreds of inspections every year, attended every local event and cooperated with our Public Security department and EMS.

With mergers we have experienced a Montreal Fire department with years of labour strife and disinterest in communicating in English on their website despite numerous requests from our Council, unwillingness to cooperate with our Public Security, refusing to advise them of fire calls in CSL, preventing our city from providing maximum services to our residents not to mention a firefighter union that worked hard yet failed to terminate CSL’s all-star volunteer EMS.

We have had almost no fire inspections at all despite pleas by our Council to improve on this dismal and dangerous record.

These are just a few examples of our city’s experience with a single service since merger.  There are so many more examples as oft cited at our Council meetings.

While we are lucky to have broken free from much of the merger disadvantages several continue to haunt us as revealed by Henry Aubin in this Gazette column:  Henry Aubin: Loud silence on merger milestone.

Is Montreal ready for emergencies?

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Is Montreal ready for emergencies?

City deserves credit for getting ready to cope with weather extremes, but Chicago shows it might be wise to do even more


The Gazette May 26, 2011

The Richelieu Valley’s freak flooding, causing mayhem for hundreds of homeowners, shows what can happen when municipalities don’t anticipate the sort of extreme weather events that climatologists say could become much more common.

Chicago, having learned its lesson from a 1995 heat wave that contributed to the deaths of about 500 people, has become a leader among North American cities in preparedness against various kinds of extreme weather. Is Montreal doing enough?

This city’s vulnerability to weather extremes is plain. Last July’s heat wave, according to public-health authorities, precipitated the deaths of 106 people. Also last summer, tornadoes – ultraweak and undestructive – were spotted in Ste. Anne de Bellevue and the northern suburb Mascouche. No one will forget the 1997 rainstorm and the 1998 ice storm. And lest anyone smugly assume that the city’s remoteness from the coast gives it immunity to those increasingly severe hurricanes, bear in mind that Hurricane Hazel in 1954 blasted a city far more inland than us, Toronto, drenching it with 11 inches of rain and causing 83 deaths.

To be sure, no single weather event, including the Richelieu River’s overflow, can be blamed on human-made greenhouse-gas emissions, but most scientists say increasing emissions contribute to the overall trend.

The Tremblay administration – in particular, the executive committee’s Alan DeSousa – deserves credit for taking various steps to adapt to changing weather conditions (as distinct from taking steps to reduce greenhousegas emissions). The city is:

–Building four water-retention basins to keep sewers from overflowing during storms. (The four are in Ahuntsic, Lachine, Griffintown and St. Laurent.)

–Banning construction of new buildings on Montreal Island within 10 metres of the St. Lawrence River and the Rivière des Milles Îles. (Time will tell if 10 metres is enough.)

–Extending water-intake pipes farther into the St. Lawrence River in anticipation of lower water levels.

–Repairing leaking under-ground pipes carrying drinking water. This will, among other things, help in the event of future water shortages. DeSousa estimates that leakage caused the loss of 40 per cent of water a decade ago, that this is now down to 30 per cent, and that it should be at about 20 per cent by 2015.

–Obliging all new-building and renovated basements to install backwater valves, according to a bylaw effective in July. At times of heavy rain, these devices prevent sewers from backing up.

–Planting more shade trees to cool the territory and absorb rainwater, and encouraging vegetation on roofs.

–Bracing for the latest in-vasive species, the ash borer beetle, by ceasing as of last spring to plant its favourite food, ash trees, along Montreal streets. The insect has already killed tens of millions of such trees in the U.S., and warmer weather has brought it to southern Quebec. Ash trees are second only to maples as the most common tree on streets and in parks.

–Imposing new rules for off-street parking spaces in St. Laurent, where DeSousa is borough mayor. Asphalt parking lots absorb heat and don’t absorb rainwater, contributing to flooding. A 2009 borough bylaw reduces the number of parking spots required per building (thus also encouraging use of public transit), shrinks the size of each spot by five per cent, requires shade trees to cover 40 per cent of new spots and authorizes the use of permeable paving to replace asphalt.

Chicago is doing some of the same things as Montreal, such as building underground storage tanks for rainwater. But, as the New York Times reports, it is also doing a lot of other things.

In anticipation of a hotter future, it has stopped planting native Illinois species of trees and is replacing them with varieties from the southern U.S. It is planting those trees a foot or so below the surface sidewalks so that rainwater can readily drain into them. It is also seeding these sunken areas with special weeds that resist drought, absorb water and filter de-icing salts.

Most ambitiously, Chicago is also redesigning its streets. When it builds bike lanes and parking lanes, it introduces light-reflecting surfaces that reduce heat. Fragments of recycled tires are in this asphalt, allowing the pavement to contract in winter without cracking, and expand in summer without buckling.

Chicago gets a lot hotter than Montreal, which helps explain its being in the vanguard. But if the climatologists are right, Montreal can expect to get much, much hotter, too. Getting more prepared is a sound investment; Millions spent today can save billions down the road.

Demerger doomsayers proven wrong

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Demerger doomsayers proven wrong.

How did it come to this?

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How did it come to this? (Henry Aubin, Montreal Gazette)

The verdict on the mergers is in: Things are worse

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The verdict on the mergers is in: Things are worse  (Henry Aubin, Montreal Gazette)

A decade after merger, Montreal is a city adrift

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A decade after merger, Montreal is a city adrift.

Holding school, municipal votes on same day is bad idea


In my opinion:  I agree with Henry Aubin that it is an awful idea to stage school board elections together with municipal elections.  In this article, Aubin explains why it is bad for the school boards.  It is equally bad for municipal elections, particularly in small communities where it is already difficult to gain the attention of the voters.  Adding more candidates from a different election altogether would create more confusion and diminish all candidates’ abilities to present their credentials.  Do you agree?  Post your comment below.

Holding school, municipal votes on same day is bad idea

Increase voter knowledge and the turnout will follow

By HENRY AUBIN, The Gazette  April 8, 2010

Some people have been moaning for years about the pathetic level of voter turnout at school-board elections. Everyone has been saying that “something must be done.” No one, however, has ever defined what that something is – no one, that is, except Education Minister Michelle Courchesne.

The minister says she might ask cabinet later this year to approve her idea of holding school-board elections on the same day as municipal elections. Municipal elections attract many more voters than do school-board elections, so the minister figures that the latter would get a big boost in voters. That wouldn’t be hard: In the last contests, a mere 7.2 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots for French boards and 16.9 per cent for English boards.

Still, it’s a poor idea.

Yes, twinning the elections would certainly produce more school-board votes, but whether these would be more intelligent votes is another matter.

Many voters would have gone to the polls simply to vote for candidates for mayor and city or borough councillor. They’d know next to nothing about education issues. They’d check off a name of a school-board candidate more on whim than on the basis of information.

Democracy thrives with an electorate that’s informed (or at least somewhat informed). Better for citizens not to vote at all than to vote blindly, stupidly.

Here’s a second problem: Municipal parties exist in the larger cities. Were school-board elections to be held at the same time as city elections, it would be easy for them to co-opt the school-board scene. They’d endorse a slate of school-board candidates and finance their parallel campaigns cheaply because of economies of scale.

What would be wrong about that?

I’ve often called these municipal parties the bane of local democracy. In most cases, its political bosses behind closed doors who pick candidates for the various seats; this is the antithesis of grassroots politics in which ordinary citizens with reputations for a civic conscience run for office. This latter kind of candidate, the kind of person you’d like to see making decisions on education, would rarely stand a chance against a party-picked candidate: The latter’s campaign would have the big bucks.

Why would a municipal party care to get involved in school boards? Contracts. A contractor who donates to a municipal party in expectation of snagging contracts might also want work on some of those vast school-board real-estate holdings.

But here’s the most important problem with Courchesne’s plan: Coupling elections to raise the stats on voters is like treating the symptom of a disease instead of the disease itself.

The disease that underlies voter inertia has many causes: The people most motivated to vote are parents, and there are fewer people today with kids; many of those parents send their kids to private school; especially in Montreal, many parents who do have kids in public schools are immigrants unfamiliar with school-board democracy; the boards and candidates often do too little to publicize issues.

If the minister were to treat the disease, she’d publicize the relevance of school boards – and not just to immigrants but to everyone, even to people without children. She’d press the boards to deliver to every home a pre-election newsletter in which candidates would be invited to spell out their competing visions. She’d get the boards to hold candidates’ debates; many boards overlook this elementary step, which is often a way to get media coverage.

Twinning the elections would only make this more difficult. Municipal elections would hog the spotlight.

The way to increase voter turnout at school-board elections is to increase voter knowledge. And the electorate will never get that if these elections were to lose their own space.

Henry Aubin is The Gazette’s regional-affairs columnist. haubin@thegazette.canwest.com

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

Tremblay should use regional body to get better deal

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Tremblay should use regional body to get better deal

Off-island suburbs should pay more to the core city

By HENRY AUBIN, The Gazette, January 12, 2010

Many Montreal islanders will be upset Wednesday when the Tremblay administration unveils its 2010 budget. Some reports say Montrealers’ taxes will rise by roughly six per cent (once the water tax, business tax, and other lesser taxes are rolled into the property tax). That would be triple the inflation rate. It doesn’t count the surtax that some boroughs will charge. Meanwhile, the island’s suburbs are also bracing for another hard hit by Montreal on agglomeration expenses.

In October, an internal city-hall document indicated that a 16-per-cent tax increase spread over four years might be in the cards. Whether or not anything that severe actually happens, the island clearly faces the fiscal blues for the foreseeable future.

Let’s consider two scenarios for next few years.

Scenario A: In the face of high taxes in the city and the island suburbs, more young families continue to move in droves to the fiscally gentle off-island suburbs. Economic development follows suit. The departing tax base contributes to further deterioration of the island’s services and infrastructure. This scenario, in other words, calls for prolonging the decades-long enfeeblement of Montreal Island relative to the off-island.

Scenario B: Mayor Gérald Tremblay ceases to do nothing about the metropolitan region’s longstanding fiscal imbalance, in which islanders pay high municipal taxes and off-islanders pay almost nothing to support the city on which their municipalities’ prosperity depends.

Tremblay happens to have an ideal vehicle for change: the under-used Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal, the regional body that then-municipal-affairs minister Louise Harel wisely created nine years ago, but which Tremblay and his fellow mayors in the region have let languish. In an essay in La Presse yesterday, Luc Hétu, author of a recent book on Montreal politics, Une ville sous tutelle, asks a trenchant question: “What keeps the CMM … from publicly examining new ways of financing Montreal that are essential for its development?”

Quebec has the power to impose a fiscal regime on the region that would make the off-island help the city. However, it has never acted and it never will: No provincial party wants to ruffle off-islanders, given their voting leverage in Quebec elections. (It’s politically easier to download the city’s costs on to the island’s suburbs, since they lack such leverage.)

The office of Montreal’s mayor is the only place that any initiative can possibly come from. Under the law creating the CMM, the island and the off-island each has 14 seats on the 28-member CMM council; in case of a tie, however, Montreal’s mayor gets the deciding vote.

Tremblay could theoretically ram through the CMM a measure making the off-island share the burden of paying for the aging city (and get Quebec to accept it). But the lasting bitterness that this would create would harm the region over the long haul.

Far better for Tremblay to form a task force of island and off-island politicians who are on the CMM council to explore the issue and make recommendations.

One idea worthy of consideration is the Minneapolis solution. I visited that city in 1999 to see how its tax-base sharing worked, and I was very impressed. Five years later, in a report on how to strengthen Montreal, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development also touted the Minneapolis method.

Like the Montreal region, the Minneapolis region has scores of suburbs. When a new commercial or industrial project goes up there, the host municipality keeps 60 per cent of its property taxes (unlike 100 per cent in the Montreal region). The other 40 per cent goes to municipalities with the lowest per-capita commercial-industrial tax base.

Under this spread-the-wealth method, the region’s disadvantaged areas benefit from development elsewhere. The formula could be adjusted so that a municipality that has few stores and no industries does not become like a Persian Gulf emirate.

Is this concept not good enough for the region’s mayors? Fine. Let them recommend something else.

Tremblay has already wasted six years since the OECD’s recommendation. Now, with the island possibly facing years of tax hikes that exceed inflation, he needs to knuckle down and find a fairer way to share costs. The alternative is further drift and decline.

Education minister should kill this bad idea

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Education minister should kill this bad idea

Twinning municipal and school votes would only make matters worse

The notion of holding school-board elections on the same day as municipal elections is a bad idea that will not die.

Quebec Education Minister Michelle Courchesne has been mulling the idea ever since the last school elections two years ago, when a pitiful 7.9 per cent of eligible voters across Quebec went to the polls. The minister sees this as a way to increase voter turnout, and the expectation in education circles is that she’ll produce a bill to that effect in the new year. Ordinarily, the next school elections would be in 2011; the bill would postpone them to 2013 so as to twin them with the next municipal elections.

The sign of a healthy democracy, however, is not so much in the raw number of any old voters as it is in the number of informed voters. (I’ll settle for even slightly informed voters). Far fewer citizens follow the school-board scene than they do municipal politics; getting voters in a municipal election to also cast a ballot in a school-board contest they might have no interest in or knowledge of is therefore hardly a recipe for electing well-qualified school commissioners. I call this blind voting.

Twinned elections have two other problems.

One is coverage of election campaigns by the news media. Many voters get much of their information on school issues from newspapers, radio and television. If these media, whose news-gathering resources are already shrinking, have to cover two separate sorts of elections simultaneously, their coverage would only get thinner. That means that even motivated citizens would find it harder to obtain impartial news.

The other problem is the potential for municipal parties to try to expand their power by sponsoring affiliate parties in school-board races. Schoolboard candidates in Montreal, who now usually spend peanuts on publicity, would be able to tap the city parties’ warchests. These now bulge with up to $4 million.

The downside is that this would intensify the trend toward block voting by commissioners and other partisan methods that discourage thoughtful debate and decision-making.

Wilting Democracy?  Voter turnout is falling at all levels of governance. Here are the rates of voter participation in the latest elections:
Federal (Quebec voters) 59%
Quebec 57%
Municipal (all Quebec) 45%
Montreal 39%
All school boards 7.9%
Francophone school boards 7.2%
Anglophone school boards 16.9%

Turnouts in federal, provincial and municipal elections have also been declining to record or near-record lows, reflecting a nationwide weakening in the ethos of what it means to be a citizen. Several additional factors help explain why voter participation at the school-board level is so much lower, especially at francophone boards. (As the table indicates, turnout for anglophone boards’ is far better, though it is still too low.)

One factor is that many parents who care intensely about education, and who would ordinarily be likely to vote, are now sending their children to private schools.

Another factor is the province’s low birth rate. Many eligible voters have no children and thus have little interest in school matters.

As well, the typical school board has doubled in size since the late 1990s, when many were merged and their number plunged from 158 across Quebec to 71. It’s a political-science truism that citizens tend to vote less in school-board and municipal elections as their board or municipality grows in size; they feel less connected. Sure enough, turnout has fallen sharply since the mergers of school boards (as well as of municipalities.) In 1994, the last year that school elections were held before the mergers, the Quebec-wide turnout was 18 per cent, more than double the rate in 2007.

What should be done to increase voter turnout? No easy answers exist. But one thing that would help is far better campaign literature by candidates. (The norm is for flyers to contain mere platitudes.) So would more public debates. (They’ve been curiously rare at English Montreal School Board races.) Boards need to show citizens, including non-parents, why it’s in their interest to vote.

Twinning the two elections would be like giving growth hormones to gym rats: It would produce an impressive superficial appearance, but chances are it would eventually have an unhealthy effect.

Beware artificial boosters.

Henry Aubin is The Gazette’s regional-affairs columnist. haubin@thegazette.

She’s ba-a-a-ck! Louise Harel might run for mayor, Henry Aubin, The Gazette

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She’s ba-a-a-ck! Louise Harel might run for mayor

Authoritarian former PQ minister brought you the megacity

By HENRY AUBIN, The Gazette   May 28, 2009

Louise Harel says that, despite earlier denials, she is thinking of running for mayor of Montreal. Oh boy.

Let’s check out her record as it affects this city.

That record spans 1998 to 2002 when she was the Parti Québécois minister of municipal affairs with special responsibility for Montreal. Inspired by mayor Pierre Bourque’s vision of une-île-une-ville, Harel spearheaded the Bouchard government’s forced merger of Montreal Island’s 28 municipalities.

The minister’s promotion of the merger reveals a striking approach to leadership.

Harel spurned the opinion of the people most affected.

More precisely, she disregarded a demonstration in which tens of thousands of residents demanded that she consult them. She shrugged off five suburbs’ non-binding referendums in which the vote against a merger ranged from 94 to 99 per cent. And she dismissed the fact her party had been elected without a mandate to carry out such a controversial step. Indeed, premier Lucien Bouchard had even disavowed any such intention before the previous election.

Harel rejected not only public opinion but also expert opinion.

The consensus of impartial research in North America and Europe is that forced mergers are counterproductive. Experience shows that as cities get bigger, their per-capita costs rise, their services become harder to manage, and citizens feel more remote from local government (as reflected in declining voter turnout). The minister did not heed this.

Indeed, when the Bédard task force – which she had set up – echoed this consensus, she ignored its advice against making the island a monolithic municipality.

Harel misled the public about the merger’s benefits.

She argued that to be a global city Montreal had to keep up with “what is being organized” in other metropolises. She pointed in particular to Boston, touting it as an example of how a big municipality can attract prosperity. Her government even took out full-page newspaper ads suggesting that the formula of municipal organization that was working for Boston would work for Montreal.

The argument was preposterous. Fact: The municipality of Boston (pop. 560,000 at the time) was one-third as populous as Montreal Island. As well, its metropolitan region – more populous than Montreal’s region – was divided into 238 municipalities, more than twice as many as here. In reality, then, Boston was practising exactly the reverse of what Harel claimed.

This was part of a pattern of half truths and absurdities. She claimed that a merger would keep Montreal in step with European cities (never mind that 34 European countries had signed a charter that repudiated forced mergers as undemocratic). That it would save money (Toronto’s merger experience was showing the opposite). That it would curb urban sprawl (predictably, it has not). And that it would spread wealth from rich parts of the island to poor ones (when mergers were unnecessary to achieve such an end).

Harel rebutted critics by resorting to anglo-bashing.

An example occurred during a National Assembly debate. When Liberal Roch Cholette quizzed her on such non-ethnic, non-linguistic aspects of her proposed merger as taxes and local democracy, Harel erupted. She accused the Hull MNA of defending Westmount and its “anglo-British character, its old stench of colonialism.”

Critics of mergers became running dogs of WASP culture. Never mind that such other anti-merger hotspots as Hull, Quebec City and the South Shore were largely francophone. (In all, the PQ merged 42 urban areas across Quebec.)

So much for how Harel oversaw the process leading up to the merger of Jan. 1, 2002. As for the actual product – the new city itself – it has achieved none of its goals.

Harel admits mega-Montreal is now “dysfunctional,” but she blames this on the Liberal government’s decentralization of 2004. Never mind that the megacity’s problems had already started emerging by then: inefficiency, a net increase in bureaucrats across the island and degradation of services – everything the experts had prophesied.

Harel is a superb campaigner. She comes across as charmingly soft-spoken and gracious. But heed the record, not the smile. She is capable of authoritarian use of power, of rejecting empirical evidence if it does not suit her, of manipulating public opinion through far-fetched claims, and of vilifying adversaries with demagogic ethnic slurs.

All of this while leading Montreal in a counterproductive direction.


© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

Ten years ago today was the start of megacity madness

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Ten years ago today was the start of megacity madness

Bourque’s one-island-one-city speech launched the municipal reorganization

By HENRY AUBIN, The Gazette, May 26, 2009

 Today is the 10th anniversary of a milestone – many would say a millstone – in Montreal’s history. That event is the speech in which mayor Pierre Bourque announced his support for the merger of Montreal Island.

Bourque’s one-island-one-city vision was a turning point in the debate over the island’s future. It has plunged the island into a morass of inefficiency from which no escape seems likely – not because escape is impossible but because the necessary political will does not exist.

To appreciate the importance of Bourque’s speech on May 26, 1999, you have to remember the context:

The Parti Québécois had been re-elected the previous December, and during the campaign Premier Lucien Bouchard had ruled out any island-wide merger.

The long-awaited Bédard report on Montreal’s future, ordered by municipal affairs minister Louise Harel, concluded one month before Bourque’s speech that it would make no sense at all to merge the entire island: It said that “diverse studies (in the U.S. and Canada) demonstrate that per-capita expenses tend to increase after a merger.”

Yet the Bédard task force was aware of the government’s bias in favour of some kind of merger, so it said that if there must be a merger let the island’s 29 municipalities be massed into three to five new entities – but not one. Indeed, under the report’s five-city scenario the city of Montreal would actually have lost seven per cent of its population, shrinking below the one-million mark to 966,000.

Bourque would have none of the report’s richly documented skepticism and he pitched a city of 1.8 million. In a masterpiece of baloney-baffles-brains rhetoric, he declared, “Montreal has a universal destiny that transcends the reality of its immediate environment.” I wrote at the time that this was “mumbo jumbo,” but what do I know? Then as now, the Board of Trade was essentially an echo-chamber for city hall, and the business audience lapped it up.

In an interview yesterday, the then chairperson of Bourque’s executive committee, Jean Fortier, acknowledged, “We never developed an argument on the advantages of the merger.” Bourque, he said, knew the PQ could ram a merger bill via closure through the National Assembly, so “We had only one person to convince – Bouchard.”

Bouchard and Harel came around to Bourque’s view the following September and the merger became a reality on Jan. 1, 2002. Harel did find an argument, “fiscal equity” – that is, the idea the wealthy suburbs would contribute more to the poor parts of the city, including her own Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. The suburbs said that they’d contribute whatever Quebec wanted so long as they could stay independent, but Harel insisted on the radical route.

Harel’s reasoning has a bitter postscript. As the mayor of Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Lyn Thériault, told me yesterday, fiscal equity has “absolutely not” occurred.

I asked Bourque’s second in command, Fortier, for his post-mortem on the merger. “It was not good,” he says, “There has been no increase in efficiency or harmony.”

Fortier called back to say he’s not completely negative – that he sees some modest improvements: Fire service is better, he says, and decentralization has brought better management and traffic control to some parts of town.

And yet a merger was unnecessary to get these gains.

I often ask senior city and provincial officials if they can name any significant achievements since the merger that could not have been obtained without the merger. These officials are pro-merger, yet not one has been able to cite any such achievement. Yet none of them wants to rethink the way the island is organized.

Bourque’s legacy includes degradation of most services, more managers, stronger (merged) unions and a big jump in businesspeople’s contributions to the city’s political parties as businesses compete for larger contracts.

But do not worry. As Bourque would say, Montreal has a universal destiny that transcends the reality of its immediate environment.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal

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