Viewpoint: Can we be happy with a third of a city?


Added on 31 May 2004 in Viewpoints

Can we be happy with a third of a city?

May 31, 2004

Can we be happy with a third of a city?


By Benoit Labonté, president and chief executive officer
Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal

On June 20th, twenty-two districts will have a chance to opt for “dismemberment.” Ironically, this term very accurately describes the choice that they are offered. The issue is not an undoing of the merger; at most, the outcome will be the creation of dismembered municipalities, cut off from all influential or decisional power over an average of two thirds of their respective budgets, which power they will have to return to the agglomeration council. In short, they will become fractions of cities! And these cities—which, bear in mind, will only be partially reconstituted—will accordingly be deciding to hand over their decision-making powers over an important set of critical and strategic issues to the central city, in exchange for supervising their sidewalks, parks, garbage collection and snow removal, not to mention the important power to issue pet licences. Very edifying!

The eventual “reconstituted” cities should not harbour any illusions. Even if the dismemberment option wins the day in all 22 referenda—which is unlikely—these reconstituted cities would together represent only 28% (total number of voters in the 22 districts) of votes on the agglomeration council, in the face of a monolithic Montreal that would hold all the power with 72% (number of voters in the central city) of votes. If that seems like a lesser evil under a mayor with a conciliatory and amenable personality, one need only look at the history of Montreal to realize that this is a rare exception rather than the rule.

Some people—including us—are staunch believers in the new city of Montreal. Others regret the loss of the municipality they knew before the new city arrived on the scene. Everyone involved has his or her own arguments and has had plenty of opportunity to discuss either point of view in recent months.

The time has come to set aside these discussions and concentrate in coming weeks on the only real issue of the public consultation this June 20th in 22 districts of the Island of Montreal: the choice between staying in the present municipal structure, or dismemberment and participation in the management of the various jurisdictions through a new agglomeration council, as defined by Bill 9.

There is a considerable distinction that should be repeated: returning to the status quo ante (i.e. the way it was before) is not among the options offered to citizens. The advantages attributed to the former municipalities before the merger no longer apply in the current debate. If there is one point on which the Premier of Quebec and the Minister of Municipal Affairs have been unequivocal, it is that returning to the former situation is out of the question. In other words, holding out to voters the hope of seeing this scenario come about stems from either a profound misunderstanding of Quebec political realities or a deplorable intellectual dishonesty.

To dismember or not to dismember, that is the only question. And to answer it, nothing works better than cold, honest analysis of the options.

In our opinion, dismemberment would be an attractive option for only one district on the Island of Montreal, namely the former city of Montreal. By withdrawing from the current municipal structure, Montreal would find itself with the benefits of both the merger and the de-merger. First of all, with 57.4% of votes on the agglomeration council, the former City of Montreal would rule over it as lord and master. Representatives elected solely by voters from the territory of the former City of Montreal would ultimately have full decision-making power over the administration and jurisdiction of very important collective responsibilities. These elected officials would therefore have the last word on the administration of 100% of revenues coming from their reconstituted municipality and an average of some two thirds of revenues from other municipalities on the island. What a deal that would be!

Fortunately for their fellow citizens on the rest of the island, this idea did not occur to inhabitants of the former City of Montreal, and none of its politicians sensed the bargain. What is much more su rp rising, however, is that more than 10% of the citizens of 22 former municipalities took the first step towards doing the work in place of the former City of Montreal.

As citizens of the Island of Montreal, we are all individually aware of the importance of local services in the overall quality of our environment. However, it is self-evident that we also lend considerable importance to our city's vitality in terms of culture, community, economy and tourism. These two dimensions of municipal responsibility are important, and we believe it is just as important for locally elected individuals to be able to promote our interests and ideas in these two aspects of urban life.

To hear proponents of dismemberment talk about it, this hardly matters. Having full control of local services—to which they are already entitled, remember, as boroughs of the new city of Montreal—they would willingly agree to entrust an average of two thirds of their budget to other people, as well as decision-making powers over all jurisdictions of the agglomeration. Does this mean that inhabitants of the 22 districts holding a referendum have little concern for the metropolitan highway network, economic development, industrial parks, social housing, promoting tourism, public transit or public security? Does it mean they have no input on how the agglomeration council will administer two thirds of their budget? Or could it be that the real stakes have not yet been clearly explained, or worse, have been obscured by demerger demagoguery?

According to the scenario imposed by Bill 9, despite the withdrawal of certain cities and after innumerable transition committees, the great city of Montreal will live on. To tell the truth, inasmuch as the agglomeration as a whole will share the funding of responsibilities most important for the development and well-being of Montreal, the chief result is that this great city will have lost time and energy in the demerger process rather than any real powers.

The good news, arguably, is that the consultation process is drawing to a close. The bad news is that by choosing to voluntarily withdraw from decisions concerning the agglomeration—which issues directly affect their future—the citizens of certain districts are implicitly preparing to reject the vision of a metropolis to which everyone can contribute, of a city where the diversity of its population and the ability to work together constitute its greatest wealth.