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Who does what?
Trying to figure out who provides which services locally
It’s municipal election season and time to prepare for that large voter’s ballot with dozens of names on it! Region, City, Townships, School boards, oh my! It can feel a bit intimidating trying to figure everything out. So today’s post will provide an overview of who does what in local government.
Municipalities are governed by municipal councils. The job of a municipal council is to make decisions about municipal financing and services. In Waterloo Region, the head of a local (i.e., city or township) municipal council is called the mayor and council members are called councillors (formerly aldermen). These positions may go by different names (such as reeve, instead of mayor) in other Ontario municipalities.
Our local municipalities and townships are divided into wards. Depending on the municipality, each ward may have one, two or more representatives on council. Voters in each ward can choose only among the candidates who are running for election in that ward. However, the mayor is always elected at large by all of the voters in the municipality. So, for example, a resident in ward one in Kitchener will be able to vote for one person to represent ward one and also vote for a mayor of Kitchener. The voter’s ballot is specific to your ward.
Our city and township governments are called lower-tier municipalities because we also have a regional government, which is referred to as upper-tier. Other municipalities in Ontario that do not have an upper-tier regional government are simply called single-tier municipalities.
The head of our regional council is called the Regional Chair. The chair is elected by voters from the entire region (other regions may have only the members of regional council elect the Chair).
Did you know that the Region of Waterloo provides more than 60% of municipal services in Waterloo Region? It can be tricky to know which level of government is responsible for which services, especially given that some services are shared between various levels of government. However, here’s a brief look at some of the services provided locally by different levels of government:
The Region’s responsibilities include:
Public Health (such as infectious diseases programs, dental health programs, and emergency medical services and health protection);
Community Services (such as employment and income support, Children's Services, and Seniors' Services);
Waste Management (such as landfill and recycling);
Public Transit (GRT);
Region of Waterloo International Airport;
The Waterloo Region Police Service
Whereas the cities and townships are responsible for:
Building inspections and permits;
Vital statistics (births, deaths, marriage);
Parks and recreational programs;
Tax collection (and more!)
But wait! The region and cities/townships also share some responsibilities, including:
Water and sewer;
Roads (arterial vs. residential roads, for example);
Libraries (rural vs city libraries);
Licensing and bylaws;
Arts and culture;
How exactly are the roles and responsibilities divided up? According to this WR Record article: “There is a political principle meant to guide who does what. The principle of local preference, enunciated in a 1979 review of regional governance, says any government function should go to the most local level that can effectively fulfil it.
This compels a political judgment: when is a service effectively fulfilled?
The 1979 review says ‘decades of poor planning and poor municipal services’ by cities and townships led the province to create Waterloo regional government in 1973. Since then, eight councils and the province have tackled who does what based on political priorities of the day.”
These rules about who is in charge of what definitely get fuzzy at times. For example, as outlined in that same WR Record article, roads are one of the more complicated services to figure out. “Regional government looks after higher-speed roads that carry more commuters for longer distances. This represents 27% of all paved lanes. City and township governments look after local streets that typically carry less traffic for shorter distances. This represents 73% of all paved lanes. In winter, three cities plow all roads within their boundaries, billing regional government for the lanes that are regional. In townships, regional plows clear regional roads and township plows clear township roads, a practice that duplicates equipment and crews.” No wonder residents can end up confused at times!
A school board is a body that operates the province's publicly funded schools. It is governed by its publicly elected board members (the board of trustees). Together the trustees:
Set the school board’s vison;
Set goals that lay the foundation and drive programs and operations in the school board
School board trustees collaborate with their school board colleagues and other community partners to ensure that all the students within the board's jurisdiction have equal opportunities to reach their full potential.
Trustees can be elected to one of four different school board systems: English public, English Catholic, French public and French Catholic.
The Ontario Education Services Corporation notes that “school board trustees are locally-elected representatives of the public, and they are the community's advocate for public education. They are required to carry out their responsibilities in a manner that assists the board in fulfilling its duties under the Education Act.”
Trustees’ priorities are multifaceted, but include: a focus on student achievement, well-being and equity, and to participate in making decisions that benefit the board's entire jurisdiction while representing the interests of their constituents. Trustees must also communicate the decisions of the board back to their constituents and are required to uphold the implementation of any board resolution after it’s passed by the board.
If you’d like to learn more about municipal governments and school boards, check out some of the great resources I referenced while writing this piece: