Strong-mayor powers will be expanded to other large Ontario cities next year after the provincial government’s “test” in Toronto and Ottawa, says Premier Doug Ford.
The additional authority is needed for mayors in order to achieve the goal of building 1.5 million homes across Ontario in the next decade, Ford said Monday.
The premier said he would “be very disappointed” if the next mayors of Toronto and Ottawa opted not to use the expanded powers.
Under legislation passed last month, the chief magistrates of Ontario’s two largest cities will have sweeping authority over municipal budgets and the hiring and firing of senior city staff.
Only a two-thirds vote of city council can overrule a “strong mayor” on matters deemed a “provincial priority,” such as affordable housing projects, public transit, highways and other infrastructure.
Toronto Mayor John Tory, the front-runner in next Monday’s municipal election, has welcomed the changes, but the two leading candidates to succeed the retiring Jim Watson as Ottawa’s mayor have said they neither want nor would use the powers.
Both Catherine McKenney and Mark Sutcliffe said at last week’s CTV Ottawa debate that they opposed the measures.
“These new powers are undemocratic. They’re Doug Ford’s way of getting what he wants through the city of Ottawa. I will not use those powers,” said McKenney, a city councillor.
Sutcliffe, a former radio talk-show host, agreed.
“I have no intention of using those powers either. I don’t think anybody in Ottawa was asking for them. I intend to build consensus and respect the democratically elected members of council,” he said.
Asked about McKenney and Sutcliffe’s comments at a news conference in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata, Ford said, “Well, that’s going be their choice. I’d be very disappointed.”
The premier, who was a Toronto city councillor when his late brother, Rob Ford, was mayor, said a chief magistrate should be more than just another member of council.
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“You become the mayor and you get this big, nice office, you’re called mayor, but guess what? You have the same vote as a single councillor. Why?” he said.
“They need the opportunity to move their agenda forward when they get voted in from every single ward in their region. They should have a little more power to make things happen rather than have the same vote as a single councillor.”
In Toronto’s 2018 mayoral election, Tory won every city ward and received 479,659 votes. That was 129,244 more than the combined tally of the entire 25-member city council, which garnered 350,415.
The councillor who won the most votes, Ana Bailão (Ward 9-Davenport), had 26,219, while the one who had the fewest, Cynthia Lai (Ward 23-Scarborough North), received 5,589.
Ford maintained the changes his government imposed should streamline housing construction.
“Hopefully, they’ll be able to use it to build attainable and affordable homes,” he said. “That’s what we’re focusing on with these municipalities working collaboratively in co-operation to continue building attainable and affordable homes.”
The premier expressed hope that the strong-mayor powers could override NIMBYism — so-called “not-in-my-backyard” opponents of development who fight multi-unit homes from being built in traditionally single-family neighbourhoods.
“If you have a certain part of council complaining day in and day out — ‘We need more homes, we need more rentals. Oh, by the way, don’t build in my backyard, build in the guy’s down the street’— hopefully we’ll move forward,” said Ford.
“We’re using Ottawa and Toronto as a test area per se, and then we’re going move forward a year after that and give it to other regions, other larger municipalities,” he said, “so when you get elected as mayor, it means something.”
While critics argue the law weakens local democracy by limiting the influence of councillors, Ford’s comments suggest the next mayors of Mississauga, Brampton, Hamilton, Markham, Vaughan, Kitchener, London and Windsor, among others, will enjoy enhanced authority in 2023.
Under the current “weak-mayor” system, a chief magistrate can appoint committee chairs, but only has one vote on council.
That means the mayor must win the backing of a majority of councillors to make major changes.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
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