Disgruntled Scarborough resident calls for de-amalgamation
Robert McDermott is fed up with city council and has launched a campaign to get Scarborough to de-amalgamate from Toronto.
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A disgruntled Scarborough resident is fed up with Toronto’s city council and is hoping a petition will help start the process of de-amalgamation.
Robert McDermott, a real estate agent in Scarborough, said he launched the “Free Scarborough Campaign” because amalgamation has been “a dismal failure” that has led to tax increases and declines in service. McDermott is calling for Scarborough to de-amalgamate from the city “to restore accessible, local government.”
Scarborough and surrounding Toronto municipalities merged to form the modern City of Toronto in 1998 after then-premier Mike Harris passed amalgamation legislation that was proposed as a way to save the province money. The controversial bill was heavily opposed at the time, and calls for de-amalgamation have resurfaced over the years since it was enacted.
“Property taxes in Scarborough have been continually going up and services have been declining,” McDermott said, adding the amalgamated council has fuelled division between downtown Toronto and the suburbs surrounding it.
“We’ve lost the ability to manage our own affairs, really. We’re being dictated by a centralized government in downtown Toronto.”
Online, McDermott’s campaign has failed to receive much traction, with just over 90 signatures on the online petition as of Tuesday afternoon. However, he said he has received about 3,200 signatures from going door-to-door in Scarborough. McDermott hopes to gather enough signatures by the end of 2017 to compel municipal and provincial officials to launch a referendum on de-amalgamation.
John Sewell, who was mayor and councillor in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was against amalgamation, believes that council is both too large and that the area it covers is too vast.
“A different system would have better government, people more closely related to their government,” Sewell said. “I don’t believe that anybody feels they are in control of what is happening in their city at the moment.”
A 2013 study from the University of Toronto’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance found that amalgamation resulted in a city that is both too small to address regional issues that plague the GTA, such as transportation, and too big to be responsive to local residents.
While it is certainly possible to undo amalgamation, it is not an easy process – and one that the province has shown little interest in, said Lydia Miljan, an associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor.
Miljan and Zachary Spicer co-authored a 2015 Fraser Institute study looking at the process of de-amalgamation, focusing on whether it was possible to reverse the process and whether it is the best decision when it comes to finances and governance. That study found while there is no reason de-amalgamation cannot be pursued, it is often not desirable.
“It’s a really complicated process,” said Miljan. “You would have to decide what did Scarborough have pre-amalgamation and what did it get after, and then decide whether or not the amalgamated municipality owes money to the place it just left and how much that would be.”
In theory, amalgamation is a simple process that just requires provincial approval, said Spicer, an assistant professor at Brock University, but in practice “it’s a bit more tricky.”
“The province doesn’t need the city to say yes or no, but they realistically wouldn’t move forward without their approval,” he said. “Even if the city approved, it wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be simple and it would take a long time to figure out how to divide assets.”
Spicer also said there isn’t political motivation for the province to re-open the issue of amalgamation.
“The province used a lot of political capital to amalgamate, and to de-amalgamate now would be a fight they don’t need. There’s not a whole lot of benefit to do it,” he said.
McDermott understands it’s a difficult process, but he hopes the campaign will get both residents and politicians talking.
“There’s a lack of accountability when it comes to decision making,” he said. “I think it’s time Scarborough go it alone.”