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Killing the elephant

Just when you thought the future of Hamilton was stable and secure, Mayor Bob Bratina has taken a blow torch to its structure.

To the surprise of politicians and most residents alike, Bratina has asked the provincial government to review amalgamation and its impact on Hamilton. Bratina said during a hastily called news conference that amalgamation needs to be looked at even though the city’s urban and suburban politicians and staff have worked diligently to make the new city a success. After 14 years, the merger may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the governance seems to be going down smoother than expected.

Yes, during the intervening years, politicians failed to adequately address the structural problems of the city, more interested in remaining within ward and professional silos than assisting their neighbours. Costs were increasing, taxes were rising, and the infrastructure remained forgotten. There was a time that if a de-amalgamation vote happened, it would have passed. But that train has left the station.

Most politicians and knowledgeable people characterized Bratina’s actions as nothing more than crass politics. In 2010, Bratina promised disgruntled Flamborough and Glanbrook residents he would do something about amalgamation. He never spelled out what that meant, but rural residents didn’t care since someone was actually listening to them.

“It’s not working, everybody agrees with that,” Bratina said during his 2010 campaign launch. “Amalgamation is the elephant in the room. The elephant is even bigger now.”

Since that initial outburst, Bratina remained mute about his amalgamation plans. He recently said that he couldn’t do anything about the amalgamation question because there was no evidence. With the research paper by a Western University associate professor, Bratina believes he has the justification for his flawed message.

The paper, which has yet to be published, examines amalgamated communities in Ontario, including Hamilton, from 1996 to 2011 and found costs indeed have increased, and the bureaucracy has correspondingly risen.

In Hamilton’s case things started out rocky, but in 2011, after a few years of urban and suburban politicians at each others’ throats over the taxes and who would pay for services, councillors finally hammered out an area-rating compromise that resulted in a unanimous vote. More importantly, it helped to dissipate the tension that had been building up over the years.

But more fundamental is if de-amalgamation is allowed to be voted upon now, who would pay for it? How would basic services such as waste collection, fire, and police be provided, not to mention the sewage treatment plant? Voters should be aware that if they do side with a politician in favour of de-amalgamation, the process will be long, painful, and ultimately costly.

The reality is amalgamation remains as embedded into Hamilton’s governance structure as the emerald ash borer in an ash tree. It can’t be killed as easily as some people wish.

Politicians and residents need to make the city of many communities flourish without the backbiting that prevented Hamilton from moving forward as quickly as other communities did after their mergers.

This, hopefully, brief digression about amalgamation will prove to the community that no politician will ever ignore an opportunity to throw mud when it serves the needs of their political future.

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