Norfolk council stays opposed to strong mayor powers

After another strained debate about accepting the province’s offer of strong mayor powers to accelerate housing construction, Norfolk County councillors voted on Monday to confirm their earlier decision to not sign the provincial housing pledge — and spurn roughly $4.5 million in funding for roads and water.

The Ford government has promised infrastructure dollars to municipalities that agree to build a set number of houses, as dictated by the province.

Mayors in the participating cities would also be empowered to unilaterally hire and fire key senior staff, table a budget, and override council decisions on matters of provincial priority, namely housing and transit.

Councillors in Norfolk who had opposed the scheme at a Sept. 12 council-in-committee meeting were not swayed by the clarifications county staff sought from the province ahead of Monday’s special council meeting.

They were especially alarmed to learn that the strong mayor powers have no expiry date — unless the province rescinds them — and are not subjection to reconsideration by future councils.

Mayor Amy Martin pledged to delegate as many strong mayor powers as legally permissible back to council or the chief administrative officer, but that was not enough to assuage councillors who had been getting an earful from constituents opposed to the idea of subverting local decision-making power.

Martin, who lost Monday’s vote 7-2, told her council colleagues that development is inevitable and they were making a “strategic” error in not playing ball with the province on this issue.

The prospect of being shut out by Queen’s Park when Norfolk asks for significant infrastructure money in the near future, particularly to improve the county’s water capacity, “concerns me deeply,” Martin said.

But it was partly that lack of water treatment capacity — which has prompted development slowdowns across the county — that made councillors skeptical Norfolk could meet the provincial expectation of building 5,700 new homes by 2031.

The county received “no direct answer” from the ministry as to whether the municipal housing targets refer to approved units, building permits issued, or completed houses.

Norfolk’s draft housing pledge referred to housing approvals, as that is the only step in the construction process the county can afford. But Coun. Alan Duthie noted the Ford government talks of getting 1.5 million homes actually built by 2031, leaving Norfolk at risk of not getting any infrastructure money if the homes approved by council are not built before the deadline.

Coun. Doug Brunton summed up the prevailing view: “What good is it to approve 5,700 homes if we don’t build any? It doesn’t make sense.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator