Premier Doug Ford is poised to give U.S.-style “strong-mayor” powers to the cities of Toronto and Ottawa, the Star has learned.
The dramatic change would dilute the influence of municipal councillors in Ontario’s two largest cities, ensuring far more authority for the mayors over financial matters and appointments.
Ford, long a proponent of mayors having greater clout than councillors, wants the Toronto and Ottawa chief magistrates empowered to oversee budgets and act unilaterally if need be.
Sources, speaking confidentially in order to discuss delicate internal deliberations, say the reforms are designed to improve city government and would be unveiled within weeks by Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark.
Asked Tuesday what was afoot, Clark’s office stressed any looming civic changes would be to help tackle the housing crisis.
“We know that today in Ontario, too many families are frozen out of the housing market,” Chris Poulos, the minister’s director of issues management, said in an email.
“That’s why we have a plan to build 1.5 million homes over the next 10 years and continue to explore ways to help municipalities get more homes built faster,” said Poulos.
Only the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa would be granted the new authority. There are no imminent plans to give similar powers to mayors of cities like Mississauga, Brampton, Hamilton or London.
Details are still being finalized and the matter has yet be discussed by Ford’s full cabinet as the re-elected Progressive Conservative government prepares for the Aug. 9 throne speech outlining its agenda.
Cabinet meets Wednesday at Queen’s Park, at the same time as Toronto’s city council holds its final meeting before this fall’s municipal election.
As Toronto city council met into the night on Tuesday, and news of the strong-mayor change spread, Coun. Gord Perks made a plea for information about what Ford is up to.
“The Toronto Star is reporting that once again the Premier of Ontario thinks that the people of Toronto are incapable of governing themselves, and that it’s his intention to introduce legislation which will create a strong-mayor system,” Perks told Coun. Frances Nunziata, the city council speaker. “I think it would be inappropriate for us to end our term without us having a chance to discuss a potentially very, very important change to the way the city of Toronto is governed.”
Nunziata agreed to consult with the city manager and mayor’s office for more details by Wednesday.
It remains unclear whether the Toronto and Ottawa mayors would enjoy the sweeping veto powers of their American counterparts.
Ford, who lived in Chicago for many years, has often marvelled at how mayors in some U.S. cities are able to operate like chief executives.
The Tories, who want any changes in place before the Oct. 24 municipal elections, emphasized no one should be surprised by the premier’s gambit.
He would in effect be fulfilling a pledge he first mused about in his 2016 book, “Ford Nation: Two Brothers, One Vision,” although he did not broach the issue during this year’s Ontario election campaign.
“If I ever get to the provincial level of politics, municipal affairs is the first thing I would want to change,” wrote the former city councillor, whose late brother Rob Ford was mayor from 2010 until 2014.
“I think mayors across the province deserve stronger powers. One person in charge, with veto power, similar to the strong mayoral systems in New York and Chicago and L.A.”
Under the existing “weak-mayor” system in Ontario, a mayor can steer an agenda by appointing committee chairs, but only has one vote on council and needs the backing of a majority of councillors to make significant changes.
Toronto Mayor John Tory, who is seeking re-election to a third term this fall, has long argued that the head of city council needs more than symbolic power.
“I think people right now, they think that I have the authority to do a whole lot of things, and in fact I have authority to do very little,” Tory, who defeated Ford in the 2014 mayoral race, admitted to the Star’s David Rider in 2018.
In some types of “strong-mayor” systems, the chief magistrate can override city council decisions, fire and hire department chiefs, and control the budget.
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It will not be the first time Ford has imposed a radical change on city council that he didn’t mention during a recent provincial election campaign.
Four years ago, as first revealed by the Star, he unilaterally slashed the size of Toronto city council almost in half even as that municipal campaign was underway.
Along with cutting the number of councillors from 47 to 25 — to match ward boundaries to federal and provincial ridings — Ford scrapped regional chair elections in Peel and York regions.
That curbed the ambitions of Patrick Brown, a former PC leader who is now the Brampton mayor, and Steven Del Duca, who later became Liberal leader and lost the June 2 provincial election.
But in October 2019, Ford and Clark abandoned further municipal reforms, scrapping a proposed revamp of regional governments that some feared would mean forced amalgamations of towns and cities.
Critics of a “strong-mayor” system argue that city council acts as a check on the office, ensuring a more consensus-building approach to municipal governance and preventing any mayor from going rogue.
Some also worry that, in Toronto at least, left-leaning councillors would see their influence diminish at city hall.
Toronto Coun. Mike Layton said Ford’s proposed changes “could be a huge loss to democracy” if the newfound powers land in the wrong hands. In specific, Layton raised concerns that the new changes would wrest power from city councillors on important items like the annual budget.
“The budget is arguably the most important item we pass all year. And it’s a product of councillors who reflect the will of their constituents. If all of a sudden you’re cutting those voices out, and giving a mayor sweeping powers to potentially override those councillors, how is that serving democracy?”
Proponents — including the Star’s editorial board in 2008 — counter that a mayor should be “not just one voice among many on council but a chief executive with powers to manage the city … especially its finances.”
A 2005 report by the “Governing Toronto Advisory Panel” recommended a strong mayor as part of municipal reforms.
When then-premier Dalton McGuinty passed the City of Toronto Act in 2006 — giving the provincial capital greater autonomy over its affairs, including increased taxing powers — he touted a “strong-mayor” system.
“This is an issue that is independent of personalities, political leanings,” McGuinty noted in 2008.
“It’s all about ensuring we have an effective governance model to help lead an exciting, large urban centre here in North America at the beginning of the 21st century. I don’t think that we’ve got the model in place that allows them (Toronto city council) to do that,” he said.
“I’ve said before that I’m in support of a strong-mayor system and my support remains.”
David Miller, who was Toronto’s mayor at the time, said he did not need such powers, so McGuinty’s Liberal government backed off.
However, Queen’s Park warned it would impose such a system if city council was incapable of making necessary changes to improve the chaotic budget-making process.
After lurching through a debilitating budget crisis, Miller struck an expert panel, which concluded in 2008 that a 45-member city council was “unwieldy, difficult to operate, and diffuses accountability, authority and responsibility.”
But months later, the “strong-mayor” push returned to the back burner as other matters came to dominate provincial and municipal politics after the 2008 global financial meltdown.
Now it is re-emerging just in time for the October civic elections.
There is no incumbent in Ottawa’s mayoral race, as Jim Watson is not seeking re-election.
So far, 10 candidates have registered, including former mayor Bob Chiarelli, Coun. Catherine McKenney and broadcaster Mark Sutcliffe.
In Toronto, Tory is facing off against 11 less-known challengers.
With files from Jacob Lorinc and David Rider
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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