Montréal will be ungovernable unless powers are reallocated to the central city

Montréal is going through a crisis of governance without precedent. The collusion and corruption uncovered by the Charbonneau Commission are simply unacceptable. Recently, the Léonard Report on municipal contracts and the 2012 annual report from the Ville de Montréal’s auditor general pointed to a lack of consistency and cohesion, not only between boroughs, but also with central services.

These observations should come as no surprise. A 2004 OECD report in the same general spirit indicated that the Montréal area is one of the most politically fragmented. The Report of the Task Force on Montréal’s Issues of Governance and Taxation, released by the Board of Trade in March 2010, denounced the same situation.

Such fragmented power does not serve Montréal’s interests. It creates undue delays in decision making and service delivery and results in rules of the game that are neither clear nor predictable. Even when decisions are made, there is room for opposition from local counter-powers, delaying their implementation.

Whether the next mayor of Montréal likes it or not, he or she will have to tackle this problem. The mayor will need the Government of Québec to authorize amendments to the city’s charter to reinforce the central city’s powers. And since we currently have a minority provincial government, the mayor will have to extract commitments from elected officials from at least two of Québec’s three main parties.

Will the next mayor have the powers of persuasion necessary to convince borough colleagues to hand over actual decision-making mechanisms to the central city? And will elected officials in Québec City have the courage to invest the city administration with the powers it needs to revitalize Québec’s largest city?

We are starting to see positive signs. Last month, François Legault, chief of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), launched the debate with his proposal to reduce the number of boroughs and elected officials and eliminate the title of borough mayor. Some were quick to question whether these cuts were appropriate. But the second part of the CAQ’s proposal merited more serious discussion: strengthening the central city.

This week, Minister Jean-François Lisée publicly committed to “acting fast to make any legislative changes” recommended by the successful candidate for mayor. And in his speech before the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, the head of the Québec Liberal Party, Philippe Couillard, indicated that he was receptive to the idea of strengthening the central city.

November’s municipal election is crucial to Montréal’s future. Talking about structure and governance is not very exciting. But structure and governance are the first challenges that will put the next mayor’s leadership to the test.

Throughout the campaign, the Board of Trade will be asking candidates for their positions. Our first question is clear: as a mayoral candidate, what do you propose to make Montréal a city known both for its efficiency and for the integrity of its governance?  

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