Harry Kitchen Remembers Writing a Report on Restructuring Victoria County
January 14, 2023
Harry Kitchen at the Peterborough Golf and Country Club
“In mid-December of 1999, I received a call from a senior staff member in the Office of the Minister of Municipal Affairs. The minister had decided to do a review of the municipal governing structure of Victoria County and he was inviting me to be the Commissioner. I was provided with a general terms of reference, similar to that used in other municipalities, but with a couple of additions. I was required to have one public meeting, produce a draft report, then produce a final report. I was told that the province would not facilitate or be involved in the process because it could be seen as influencing the outcome. In other words, I was on my own. I had no secretarial assistance, no provincial support staff, had to arrange my own meetings and handle all correspondence, had to find an accounting firm to do some costing studies and had to retain a municipal lawyer. I was given ninety days to produce a final report.”
And so, with one phone call, a very controversial study began. Victoria County and Harry’s life would never be quite the same again. For Harry, studying the structure of municipal government was nothing new. He was a professor of economics at Trent University, who specialized in municipal finance and governance. He had written reports on municipal restructuring before. About a decade earlier, he had received a phone call from John Eakins, then the Minister of Municipal Affairs, a Liberal, representing the same riding that subsequently elected his Conservative counterpart, Hodgson.
In 1989, Mr. Eakins invited Kitchen to serve as the Commissioner for a review of regional government in Niagara. The scope of work was more restrictive in that the number of municipalities could not be changed – two tier government was to remain (1 upper tier regional government and 8 lower tier municipal governments). The main focus was on examining where service responsibility should lie (municipal or regional) and the composition of and election to regional council. Kitchen had a staff that included a full time office assistant, a policy and research director, a summer research student and whatever provincial support he needed. The budget was more than ten times higher than the budget for the Victoria County study and he had one year to complete it. The budget and time allowed him to commission a number of independent studies on a variety of issues around local government. This study was an advisory report for the Minister of Municipal Affairs – meaning that the province could do as it wished with it. Many of his recommendations were ultimately, but not automatically, accepted.
The circumstances surrounding the report on Victoria County were very different. Under provincial legislation at that time, the report was final, not an advisory report. This meant that Harry Kitchen had absolute power over the structure of municipal government in Victoria County. “People said I was a dictator, and it was true, I was a dictator. At the time I had more power over the matter than the premier. I could not be fired, there was no way they could get rid of me.” No matter what Harry decided, whether it was reasonable or not, it would happen. For someone who had worked for many years on the structure of government, the job of restructuring Victoria County was a very unusual one.
Why did the Province create this dictatorship?
In 1995 Mike Harris’ Conservatives swept to power promising a Common Sense Revolution. Running on a platform that “the system is broken,” Harris promised to reduce personal income taxes by 30% while balancing the provincial budget, which had just reached a record deficit. Elected on a promise of radical change, the most radical changes would not be to the province itself, but rather in the impact on local government.
The Province would attempt to balance its budget while cutting provincial taxes and by vastly increasing the responsibilities of local government, while slashing their funding. So while taxes might be reduced at the provincial level, they would inevitably increase at the local level. At the same time, municipalities were pressured to amalgamate, with an often stated goal of reducing their numbers in half and saving money. They were bluntly told, get the job done, or we will do it for you.
Many municipalities across Ontario, including Bobcaygeon and Verulam, decided it would be better to amalgamate on their own, rather than have the Province step in. But Victoria County could not find common ground to restructure on their own, so they asked the Province to appoint a Commissioner. While some municipal politicians favoured restructuring Victoria County, the opposition was vehement. As the Minister of Municipal Affairs was demanding that all municipalities restructure, amalgamation had not occurred in his own provincial riding. Some local politicians tried to find a way to restructure Victoria County, but it became clear that there was little prospect of finding a solution that would please everyone, or even most people.
Why did the province choose to give such extraordinary powers to a commissioner? Their reasons will probably never be fully known. Could it have been that they knew the depth of opposition they would face and it would be more convenient if an individual carried public responsibility for what happened?
“I was a dictator. Think of what that means. In a country that values democracy, a dictator is coming in and telling you what kind of government you will have. Do you think there was pressure on me? There were all those letters to editors of local newspapers and a consistent stream of mainly angry correspondence. It was an extremely stressful time. That is when I started having blood pressure problems.” By the time the process was completed, Harry’s wife had spent a number of weeks in Florida while he was being escorted by an OPP security team.
At the same time, for someone who has devoted much of his research career to studying ways of improving the structure of local government, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Though Harry never expected to be given such sweeping powers, having carte blanche to recreate Victoria County, gave him the opportunity to create the best structure that he believed was possible for the area. “I tried to be the benevolent dictator, but many people did not see it that way.”
When someone is given so much leeway for a study, their own experiences and predilections become significant. Harry had grown up in a village in Southwestern Ontario. “The political environment was vey much like Victoria County.” His father was a municipal politician who was generally in favour of the status quo and staunchly opposed to regional government. “Growing up, I heard all the parochial arguments in favour of the status quo. But after I started to review municipal government structures in the late 1980s, my views changed. When the time came to study Victoria County, there were a lot of people who were like my Dad, wedded to the status quo. I heard the same lines that I had heard from him. I anticipated many of their concerns and was not surprised by them.” So Harry set out to create a structure that would allow for a strong region-wide presence and (being an economist) he hoped to set up one that would foster economic development.
As the study began in late December 1999, it faced an incredibly tight timeline. He was to produce a final report by the end of March which meant there was limited time for consultations. He started working right away by holding meetings between Christmas and New Years. Though he was not required to do so by his terms of reference, he took the time to talk to every municipal council and staff. He found that the staff didn’t always tell the same story as their municipal councillors. At that time, some municipal officials did not use computers or electronic mail, so corresponding with them was more time consuming. Trying to get the job done, Harry was working through the night. “Some municipal officials asked me what I was doing sending faxes to them at 2 am.”
“Some councils represented as few as 300 or 400 people – I believe Sturgeon Point was around 125 people. The elected representatives were important people in their communities, as they should have been, and many didn’t want to lose their position. This group tended to support the status quo but when one examined and distilled their defense of it, most of their concerns revolved around maintaining a local identity. They didn’t want to lose the name of their municipality. They wanted to have their municipality compete against other municipalities in sporting and cultural events and so on. This, of course, could be done under any governing structure. Little of their defense dwelt on the impact on service provision such as garbage collection or road maintenance or fire protection and so on, but some concern was expressed over the tax impact. After all, local services would still be provided regardless of the municipal structure. For those politicians who had decided to retire, their response was often different. They were more willing to consider and support restructuring options.”
“I got a call early on from the OPP in Lindsay.” They asked Harry to come and meet with them. When he arrived they asked about his plans to hold public meetings. He explained that though the terms of reference called for one meeting, he planned to hold 4. The officers sat there and stared. After a pause, one replied “You might want to be careful about holding a meeting in the north. There are some pretty dedicated people up there, and they might cause trouble for you.” But Harry dismissed this concern because he believed it was only fair to consult the public as widely as possible and the meeting was held.
“The level of public interest in this study was unbelievable.” When he worked on the Niagara Region study he had 4 public meetings where public attendance ranged from 4 to 15 people and four of these people showed up at every meeting. “In fact, one of the four gave the same presentation four times.” In Victoria County, “I had over 600 submissions – an unbelievably high number when compared with other restructuring studies in Ontario.” While doing previous studies, Harry had run into passionate communities who were concerned about their future. In Wellington County, around 200 people took time on a hot summer afternoon to show up at a public meeting in a town hockey arena to mainly argue against the amalgamation of the town with the surrounding township. But that was a walk in the park compared to what he faced as the Commissioner to restructure Victoria County. “John Panter took me on every chance he had.” Often accompanied by one or more of his friends, “I recall, in one meeting with his group, one member saying crazy things such as there will be riots in the streets if the structure is changed and something about the United Nations being called in to restore peace—really weird stuff.” Faye McGee, the feisty Reeve of Fenelon Township, was another strong opponent of the process. “She was never hesitant to voice her opinion on the process but her comments and assertions were never as extreme as the one cited above.” After amalgamation, these critics became the leaders of the Voices of Central Ontario.
When the time came for public meetings, there was one in Coboconk in the afternoon, with another in Bobcaygeon that night. Harry had hired Day and Day accountants to prepare the costing of three possible structures—they had previously completed cost studies relating to other restructuring initiatives in Ontario. Bill Day of Day and Day Accounting attended these meetings so he could answer any financial questions that might be posed. At Coboconk, there were a lot of presentations. “Some were pleasant and very good, and some weren’t. For those presenters who threw out screwy ideas or just wanted to rant or misrepresented facts and evidence from available data and other studies, I felt compelled to challenge them by getting them to think through their position. I didn’t want them to go away thinking that their suggestions were viable when there was no way they could or would be included in the final report.” At Coboconk, a lot of people were hollering “Why are you here?” To calm the crowd, two policemen walked up and down the side aisles of the room. “When I saw them doing this, I appreciated their attendance and saw why they had expressed concern in my initial meeting with them.”
That night in Bobcaygeon there were between 200 and 300 people at the meeting. It was obvious that something was up, but “I couldn’t figure out what was going on.” Some came with placards, all of them emblazoned with messages against Harry Kitchen. Many presentations were anti Harry Kitchen and some were inflammatory. “One woman associated with John Panter’s group stood up and said in her presentation – The only choice you should be making is how you want to die. Firing Squad? Lethal Injection? Hanging?’ About half the crowd stood up and applauded. I was stunned but maintained my cool and thought to myself, if I play this right, I can get this crowd or a portion of it on my side. After all, reasonable and responsible people will not tolerate this behaviour – surely there are some in the room.” Once again, a couple of constables walked through the crowd and calmed things down.
I distinctly remember the next presenter. He was a retired English professor from the University of Toronto, who started by saying he was not here to denigrate or belittle me but he had a number of specific questions about the three options. This was welcome relief. As I recall, there were a few more solid presentations. By the end of the meeting, I simply asked: “Do you want to know what I heard tonight? The room which at times had been raucous and loud, almost unruly, was frighteningly quiet. You could have heard a pin drop. My initial reaction was this is perfect – now, I have their attention! I said I was impressed by their passion, interest, concern and participation in the restructuring initiative. I had never seen anything like it in any other place or any other study. However, I would not be writing a report based on threats or intimidation, so I’m simply going to ignore them. I had hoped we were beyond this type of behaviour. And then the other half of the room stood up and applauded. I thanked everyone, and the meeting adjourned.”
“By this time, there was a constable standing behind me. He told me ‘Your car is OK, a policeman in a police car has been watching it. The chief of police is waiting for you on the shoulder of the highway and he will lead you to Peterborough County. I will follow you in another car until I am certain that no one is following.’ Wow, what was this? I was surprised, perhaps stunned by his comment and asked why this was being done. At that point he informed me that the OPP had an unmarked car tailing me ever since I started the study. In fact, he showed me a partial list of my travels and even cited an incident when I dropped into a Tim Horton’s in Bobcaygeon. When I returned to my car, there was a copy of a local newspaper, with an article that was extremely critical of the study, stuffed under my windshield wiper. He said the person who put the paper on my windshield was stopped when he left the parking lot and deemed to be harmless. I remember saying to the constable, you would have known if I was having an affair. His response was, you didn’t have time. Further, he said, we could have ticketed you for numerous speeding violations but we didn’t want you to know that we were tailing you. They were able to follow me because my agenda re: meetings and consultations was public knowledge. They knew when and where I would be travelling. Finally, he told me they were going to keep an eye on me until the study was completed.” But by this time, however, the public input was almost over and final report now had to be written.
The final two meetings were in Lindsay – one in the afternoon and the other that evening. By comparison with the first two meetings, these were calm and respectful events. There were a number of presentations: some were testy but not as testy as in the earlier meetings, but many were solid and thoughtful.
Throughout the process, there was no doubting the depth of public opposition. “The public meetings were contentious, and I shared many of their concerns. I might not be happy either if I were put in their position and a dictator was dropped in. But, I had accepted the challenge and was committed to seeing it through. I consistently focused on developing a structure that would be the most beneficial for the future of the County.” The Bobcaygeon Promoter wrote many articles arguing that Harry should not have been there. There were many letters to the editor in the Peterborough Examiner. “If my wife used her credit card while shopping, it had the name Kitchen on it, so clerks would ask if she was related to that guy who is doing the study?” She quickly converted to paying cash.
It soon become clear to Harry Kitchen that there was no restructuring option that would make everyone, or even most people happy. Harry considered three options: a single tier municipality, three single tier municipalities (Lindsay and the surrounding area; The North and the South) and Two Tier which was like the status quo. Before he released his interim report, most respondents favoured the status quo. The interim report favoured a single-tier municipality, and after its release, the number of submissions supporting the status quo dropped dramatically. “By the end, I wouldn’t say that a majority favoured the status quo.”
Harry had reason to believe that restructuring to a single tier would ultimately be the most cost effective option. Indeed, the Day and Day costing material supported this. Of course, this didn’t mean that taxes would go down, especially given the provincial downloading occurring at the same time. As well, they might not go down if the newly created municipality provided better quality services to parts of the municipality as apparently happened: two examples being better maintained roads and improved recreational facilities and equipment in some communities. At the same time, the single tier structure would lead to a better sharing of the cost of municipal services. Lindsay delivered the widest range of services and residents of the surrounding area were often able to use some of them without paying taxes to support them. With an amalgamated municipality, everyone’s taxes would support the same set of services. Area rating was to be implemented wherever possible so that those getting proportionately more of the service would pay proportionately more of the tax.
During the latter part of the study, four parties (Fenelon Township, two other municipalities and John Panter’s advocacy group) sought a court injunction to stop the process. After a three-week delay, when the court listened to and ruled on the injunction, it was dismissed. Harry was awarded costs and work carried on. However, the legal action delayed the final report by three weeks.
Harry retained municipal lawyer Bob Packenham to draft the order, which the commission needed to legally create the new municipality – it was an order of the commission, not an order of the province. “One of the first things he said to me was ‘You have to name the municipality, but the newly elected council can change the name if they wish.’ Apparently, I could have called it Harrietville or Kitchen’s Corners or whatever.” This came as a complete surprise. Harry only had 3 or 4 days to make a decision. “If I didn’t have to make the choice, I would not have named it.”
“I thought to myself, what should the objective be in selecting a name? In my view, the name should be of assistance in improving the level of economic activity in the area or region. I was focused on that. So I contacted an acquaintance in Toronto who worked for an international company that specialized in finding cities for firms who wished to locate or relocate. I explained that I had created a single tier municipality in a region with a lot of tourism, and it would be nice if the region could attract a larger industrial and commercial base. I asked what kind of name might have some impact in achieving this? His immediate response was don’t call it a ‘municipality of’ or a ‘county’ of, call it a city.” Furthermore, city is for incorporation purposes only. Lindsay will still be Lindsay; Bobcaygeon will still be Bobcaygeon and local communities will continue as local communities. Calling it a City gets it in a category that will attract more attention in promotional material.
“As for the actual name, it is my view that it should capture a distinctive natural feature of the area. Since there are numerous lakes here, it seemed appropriate to have “lakes” in the name. After a quick scan of a library book on the history of Victoria County, it was noted that the name ‘Kawartha’ originated around Bobcaygeon and Fenelon Falls. Hence, the name City of Kawartha Lakes. It was my hope that the name would help in attracting business and industry, as well as assisting in expanding tourism. I thought it could be effective on a website and in promotional material. When Lindsay’s economic development representative heard about it, his response to me was positive. As for whether it has actually assisted in attracting economic activity, I do not have an answer because I haven’t been in contact with the City’s economic development officials. It may be worth noting, however, that many restructured municipalities in this part of Ontario have chosen names that reflect a distinctive feature of their area.”
There was a lot of discussion about the name at the time, and “I fully anticipated that they would change it.” One weekend in mid-May following the release of the report, Harry’s daughter was visiting and she picked up a copy of the Peterborough Examiner. She noticed that there were 52 letters to the editor about the report and most focused on the name. Fifty of these letters objected to some aspect of the report, often it was about the name and two supported it. After the amalgamation, an extensive debate ensued over the name – should it be kept or should it be changed? Not only did this debate take place among the newly elected councillors and residents of the new municipality, it spilled over to the City of Peterborough. Before a decision was reached by local council, the Mayor of Peterborough and the Director of Economic Development attended a council meeting and asked Council to change the name. Their specific concern was around the “Kawartha Lakes” part. They wanted it removed because it was their opinion that the majority of the lakes were in Peterborough County, although only one of them was in the City of Peterborough. Why did they really want this change? Were they concerned that it might attract economic activity away from Peterborough? Further did their intervention have any impact on the final decision? Harry wonders if Peterborough’s insistence irritated enough councillors to lead them to keeping the name. After all, most local councils don’t want to be told what to do by their neighbours.
For years, there had been many spats on Victoria County Council, largely because of disagreements between Lindsay and the surrounding municipalities. In fact, in some circles, Victoria’s County Council had the reputation of being basically dysfunctional. Harry was determined to end this and to reduce, if not remove, the parochialism from local politics. He deliberately drafted ward boundaries that transcended the boundaries of the previous municipalities. As such, local councillors no longer represented only one of the former municipalities. Instead, as far as was geographically possible, each newly drawn ward included parts of two or more of the former municipalities. Wherever possible, wards were designed to include a mix of urban and rural populations. In some cases, the boundary lines were drawn through the center of a community such as down the centre line of Highway 7 in Omemee. “My intent was to get councillors to think about the wider community and to hopefully, reduce the parochialism associated with the past. I believe this has been effective. In a conversation a few years ago with the late Art Truax, the first mayor of the City, he told me that the ward boundaries had worked very well. Initially, he wasn’t in favour of them but he changed his mind after he saw how effective they had been in reducing much of the parochialism that had previously existed.”
A couple of months after the study had been completed, senior staff at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs asked Harry to do a debrief. “I told them that this approach put too much pressure on one person, and it was not fair to the people who live there either. If one were to go in without believing that one could do the right thing, the pressure could be oppressive. I don’t know whether my comments had any impact and I don’t even know if the province agreed with my decision. I submitted my final report in mid April of 2000 and to this day, I haven’t heard a single peep about it from anyone at the provincial level. True to their position at the outset of the study, they offered no assistance and had no involvement whatsoever in the study. I truly was on my own.”
The City of Kawartha Lakes was the Province’s last amalgamation. They had succeeded in reducing the number of municipalities from 880 to 434—just meeting their objective of cutting the number in half. When Harry was asked, if the final decision had been left to the province, would they have carried through in the face of all of the opposition? “It would have been shelved.”
For years afterwards, Harry did not visit the municipality that he had played such a prominent role in creating. For about three years, he wouldn’t even stop to fill up his car when driving through, “I didn’t want to get in a debate with anybody.” But, of course, he followed the development of the neighbouring municipality that he had helped to found. “Because there was so much negative feedback, it forced me to rethink my decision. After mulling it over a number of times, I am more convinced than ever that I made the right choice. I still feel proud of it.”
Looking back on the whole process, “one of the most impressive and interesting things was the extent to which people took an interest.” Throughout the process, there was intense public debate. He fondly remembers the challenges that his former nemesis Faye McGee posed. “I recall an interview on CHEX TV where Faye made a number of critical comments on the process or what I was doing or something or other. I can’t recall specifically what it was but it wasn’t in support of me. When I was asked for a response, I simply replied that what she said was silly and she knew it.” Faye often seemed to be at the heart of the opposition.
“Now that I look back on the challenge I faced, the people I met – both those who supported me and those who didn’t – and the work involved, I must say I enjoyed it. Because of my previous experience with restructuring initiatives and familiarity with most of the issues, I was confident that I could do the job. Of everything I have ever done, writing the restructuring report on Victoria County was, by far the most stressful. At the same time, it was perhaps the most rewarding in terms of outcome.”
Not many people would have agreed to face the firestorm of controversy that ignited when the Province decided to give dictatorial powers to a commissioner. He accepted the challenge to restructure a municipality, where many people were determined not to be restructured. But for Harry Kitchen, the chance to face this challenge was the fulfilment of a life journey. For all the thought he put into the structure of government, to the extent that people still think about it today, the first thing many critics raise is the name City of Kawartha Lakes. For a name that was in actuality a reluctant afterthought in the process of trying to create a new structure for a region’s government, it still attracts plenty of attention two decades later.
The Reports are available online. Final Report: