Over my spring break, I visited Toronto on my way to and from a speech in nearby Hamilton, Ontario. While there I learned some things about Toronto's experience with "amalgamation" that gives me cause to rethink my support for regional governance.
In 1998, despite overwhelming local opposition, the Ontario government forced Toronto to combine with several of its municipal neighbors. The idea was to achieve cost savings through efficiency and to form a more potent economic entity. Overnight, Toronto became the fifth largest city in North America.
But the cost savings are debatable, and the impact on central Toronto has been mostly bad.
In fact, thanks to voters from suburban parts of Toronto, the city's current Mayor Rob Ford is pursuing decidedly anti-city policies. Most notably, he tore up (literally at a news conference) a forward-looking transportation plan for the region and promised to tear up (literally, again) the city's wildly successful and popular streetcar lines. (I rode them all over the city when I was there last week.)
Ford feels no loyalty to residents of central Toronto who voted for the other candidate en masse. He routinely disses them as "left-wing kooks" and even refused to attend gay pride festivities.
Fortunately, he was dealt a stunning setback by his city council on his alternative, suburban-friendly transit plan, and he now seems to be more or less a political eunuch.
What happened was predicted by Toronto resident Jane Jacobs, who fought amalgamation herself. She said that amalgamation would lead to a suburban-focused government at the expense of central Toronto.
It was that kind of concern that made me resistant to handing over more power to regional entities when I was mayor. Before I took that job, I was more of a regionalist and after leaving office I've become more enamored again of regional approaches. And, in fact, there's no doubt that some things like water quality just can't be addressed effectively without it.
But should we really want suburban Dane County residents having a say over our Metro transit system, or over our growth and development as a city? Probably not.
I'm still for regionalism, but not on a wholesale basis, and not without significant curbs to protect the interests of the central city and of urbanism in general.