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Suburban urban split

Aug 16, 2016

Decisions on many key issues that have divided urban and suburban councillors could change significantly if new wards based on the principle of representation by population are approved this fall. Voting records indicate such issues include downtown renewal, heritage protection, bus lanes, most other transit issues, area rating, and development charges. And ward boundary reform might either finally achieve the projected goals of amalgamation or further intensify the bitterness it generated.

After sixteen years of wards that follow pre-amalgamation boundaries and give the much smaller suburban population nearly as many council seats as the residents of the former city of Hamilton, a long-demanded redistribution will be decided this fall. The choices outlined in an independent consultant report range from major revamp to a continuation of the status quo. The latter is likely favoured by at least the seven councillors who represent Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough, Glanbrook and Stoney Creek who repeatedly have blocked changes to ward boundaries.

Suburban representatives have voted as a solid or near solid block on other issues – especially against elimination of the lower tax rates embedded in the area rating system adopted at the time of amalgamation. Part of that system was dismantled over the last few years, but households in the former suburbs continue to pay only about a third of the transit taxes that face residents of the old city.

Transit operations have also seen urban-suburban divides, and to some extent that’s also the case for the on-going debate about LRT. Five suburban councillors voted in May to defer a decision on whether Hamilton wants the billion dollar provincial investment. A sixth was absent for the 9-6 decision and only one opposed the deferral.

Two-thirds of those who squashed the King Street bus-only lane were suburban – joined in the 9-6 decision by the three Hamilton mountain councillors. The defeat of improvements to the HSR’s Rymal 44 route two years ago was an even starker example of the urban-suburban division. That 8-5 decision taken in the absence of three urban councillors saw all seven suburban votes on the winning side.

And there was a strict urban-suburban divide last year over a motion to ask the citizen’s panel on transit to also review the HSR area rating tax system. Mayor Eisenberger joined all eight councillors from the old city to out-vote all seven suburban representatives.

Last year the two geographic factions split on a motion asking staff to look at the possibility of tolls for “out-of-town” truck traffic on the Red Hill and Linc expressways. The move was supported by Mayor Eisenberger and five urban councillors, but overwhelmed by six suburban representatives joined by Terry Whitehead.

In April of this year, the division was over a proposal to look at redevelopment of City Hall’s south parking lot and the former Football Hall of Fame. That passed 10-6, but all six opponents were suburban. Two years ago the clashes included development charges and the Randle Reef cleanup.

All suburban councillors present supported delaying increases in industrial development fees. They were joined by then mayor Bratina and Terry Whitehead, while all opponents of the delay were from the old city. On the Randle Reef remediation, a Sam Merulla motion to meet with federal and provincial politicians to expedite the cleanup was supported by all urban councillors present, but lost 7-6 by the suburban contingent and Bratina.

A suburban-urban divide has also been evident over some heritage issues, although these have been more focused on process rather than outcomes. For example, a 2014 proposal to have staff put a request for private proposals operating Auchmar on hold to consider a non-profit’s group interest was defeated when Bratina joined six suburban councillors to out-vote the six urban representatives who were present at the meeting.

The following year, Bratina joined with seven urban councillors to allow a surprise motion to designate Gore Park building facades under the Ontario Heritage Act, although the designation was subsequently approved unanimously. 

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