The demise of Region of Peel is a “good news story” or “a difficult time,” depending on who you ask.
The regional government is responsible for the most residents in Ontario after the City of Toronto and manages billions of dollars in services and buildings, ranging from paramedics to homeless shelters.
It is being welcomed by some local cities, particularly Mississauga, and lamented by the region itself and its staff.
The City of Mississauga, in particular, has pushed to be a standalone municipality for decades. Its staff anticipates the change will allow for more efficiency, better integration and more funding for local priorities.
“We’re very pleased with the transition board that has been appointed and the collaborative way they’re designing this process,” Mississauga CAO Shari Lichterman told Global News.
Regional staff fear the process remains desperately unclear with just over a year remaining and questions hanging over them, forced to carry their standard responsibilities while also helping to dissolve the corporation they work for.
Both sides agree, however, that almost every key decision still needs to be made.
The dissolution of the Region of Peel is being managed by a board of five people appointed by the provincial government.
The quintet is governed by strict confidentiality agreements as it takes on the complicated work of breaking the region apart.
Staff at the Region of Peel recently said that, although the board planned to hire consultants, none have yet been retained to work toward the Jan. 1, 2025, deadline.
The board has been briefed by both regional and city staff and is organizing a series of working groups to decide how 12 different service areas — including health, housing and waste management — will be managed.
The board will make its recommendations to the province in early 2024, although it is not yet clear if they will be public.
“It’s been a struggle because I’ve asked the transition board to come out of the shadows and speak directly and at this point in time they haven’t been able to do that,” said Region of Peel CAO Gary Kent.
Frustration in Peel isn’t necessarily shared by the cities preparing to take on new files.
Lichterman said she was “very pleased” with how the transition board had been operating and collaborating with the local governments.
While no decisions have been made over who will take over which files when the region ceases to exist, Lichterman said Mississauga would have “quite a number” of files, including housing.
A spokesperson for the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing said protecting services people use was the “top priority” for the Ford government.
“The transition board continues to work closely with Peel Region and the lower-tiers, to implement the province’s expectation of securing a fair outcome for the three municipalities, and ensuring that front-line services including health care and long-term care services can continue without disruption,” they said in a statement to Global News.
“Our government looks forward to hearing and is prepared to carefully consider the recommendations of the transition board.”
With barely 13 months until Peel is legislated out of existence, both those excited about and concerned by the dissolution plan agree the timeline is tight.
“It’s not impossible,” Lichterman said, “but it’s certainly going to take a lot of work and effort to get there.”
Through 12 working groups meeting in around 70 1.5-hour long sessions until March, regional and local staff will collaborate with the transition board to work out which services will go to cities and if some bigger resources, like police or water, will stay under some kind of regional umbrella.
A Progressive Conservative source told Global News the “big political priority” will be resolving planning duplication in the region, with the division of other services likely based on the transition board’s report and some political analysis.
They pointed out that, in the wake of the Greenbelt scandal, the Ford government would be keen to focus on a well-documented process to justify final policy calls.
A rough timeline from Mississauga suggests initial recommendations will be ready by early 2024 and go to the provincial government for the summer. Legislation confirming the changes will be tabled in the fall and, by 2025, the region will be dissolved.
“We totally understand that the legislation has passed and that it’s happening, so we’re not fighting that,” Kent said. “Maybe the ‘if’ in my mind is about the timing and the rushing of it. We accept politically that the province can create structures, can change structures.”
In a report prepared for council, Mississauga staff said there was no ambiguity over the fate of the region.
“Now, as the Transition Board has communicated clearly to the four municipalities: the outcome has already been determined,” one line read.
Lichterman agreed with Kent that the timeline would put “a lot of strain on everybody’s resources” and sparked some fears “that you haven’t had taken enough time to study the options” over how the split could be handled.
Lichternman, however, believes the timeline is achievable and will bring certainty through its swift resolution.
“Frankly, in government, we would probably take as long as we were given to do this, whether it’s 18 months or five years,” she said.
At the centre of the changes in Peel are its 5,000-plus staff, most of whom do not know what they’ll be asked to do after the region dissolves.
“It is certainly a traumatic time for many employees who have been longtime employees, who are very passionate about the community and about the work they do,” Kealy Dedman, the region’s commissioner of public works, said.
The region said around 300 people have left since the transition was announced, including Peel’s treasurer, director of transportation and a number of planners. Almost 10 per cent of jobs with the Region of Peel are currently vacant.
Local cities are also waiting in the wings, hoping to bring many on board and keep as much continuity as possible.
“We very much want to retain them, their knowledge, their experience, their passion, their commitment to our cities,” Lichterman said.
She said Mississauga is working with the transition board to try and bring certainty over people’s futures as quickly as possible, with a focus on transferring or retaining frontline staff workers.
“There will be probably different paths to get them to their new opportunities, but there is absolutely a commitment to secure positions for the majority of Region of Peel staff,” she said.