The premier was frustrated and impatient, ready to foist a “strong-mayor” system on Toronto.
The mayor felt hamstrung.
The councillors enjoyed their clout.
The media wondered why even the little things weren’t getting done amid all of the partisan bickering.
The public just wanted city services to be delivered efficiently.
No, not Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford, Toronto Mayor John Tory and a council of savvy progressives.
That premier was Liberal Dalton McGuinty, the mayor was New Democrat David Miller, and the councillors were swaggering right-wingers like Rob Ford, Denzil Minnan-Wong and Doug Holyday, who basked in trying to thwart the “left-leaning” agenda.
Lost in the criticism swirling since the Star revealed Tuesday night that Ford plans to impose a “strong-mayor” model — which would give Toronto and Ottawa mayors greater responsibility for budgets and appointments — is that the idea is neither new nor surprising.
“This is an issue that is independent of personalities, political leanings,” McGuinty mused in 2008, two years after his government passed the City of Toronto Act giving the provincial capital more power and autonomy than any other Ontario municipality.
“It’s all about ensuring we have an effective governance model … I don’t think that we’ve got the model in place that allows (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.”
Liberals thundering against Ford’s gambit may have forgotten McGuinty, who won three elections and governed from 2003 until 2013, remains the most successful Grit in Ontario politics since Sir Oliver Mowat left office in 1896.
McGuinty likely would have given Toronto a strong mayor if the global financial meltdown later in 2008 hadn’t moved his focus elsewhere.
In the years since, positions have shifted on both sides of the political spectrum.
Miller, who publicly embraced a “strong-mayor” system in 2008 after a blue-ribbon panel he commissioned gave that recommendation, groused on Twitter that “the province needs to stop interfering with Toronto.”
“All of these actions not only are wrong, but are gutless,” he tweeted Tuesday.
Similarly, Minnan-Wong, who railed against granting Miller more authority in 2008, is singing a different tune now that his ally Tory is mayor.
“Do you want to give this mayor more power? Until he does a better job, I think the answer’s no,” the veteran councillor said 14 years ago.
Fast-forward to Thursday, when Minnan-Wong said at the final council meeting before his retirement that he “strongly supports” the reforms, which essentially codify agenda-setting powers the mayor already has.
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“By creating this strong-mayor system, we are telling the people that we are creating an accountable system whereby people can judge the mayor by what he’s actually doing … and allows the mayor to deliver on his agenda,” he said.
Even Tory, who was leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in 2006, voted against the City of Toronto Act, although the then-opposition leader said he did so because it was “an unfortunate missed opportunity” that failed to create “some of the autonomy the city needs to make some of its own decisions.”
All of which is to suggest that — notwithstanding McGuinty’s counsel to set aside “personalities, political leanings” — some of the criticism and praise now directed at Ford’s move may stem from partisan self-interest as much as altruism or concern for democracy.
Under the existing “weak-mayor” system, a mayor can appoint committee chairs, but only has one vote on council.
That means the chief magistrate need the backing of a majority of councillors to make major changes.
Yet no elected politician in Canada receives as many direct votes as the mayor of Toronto.
In 2018, Tory earned 479,659 votes from Torontonians. By comparison, Ford got 13,934 votes on June 2 in Etobicoke North and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau garnered 22,848 votes in Papineau in last September’s federal election.
The mayor’s total was a staggering 129,244 more votes than the combined tally of the entire 25-member city council, which received 350,415.
Coun. Cynthia Lai (Ward 23-Scarborough North) won with just 5,589 votes while Coun. Ana Bailão (Ward 9-Davenport) led her colleagues with 26,219 votes.
However, on the council floor, Lai, Bailão and their fellow councillors have the same voting power as Tory.
In an extraordinary moment of candour four years ago, the mayor admitted to David Rider, the Star’s city hall bureau chief, how relatively powerless he was.
“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 told Rider.
Certainly, many of the hundreds of thousands of Toronto residents who cast ballots for their mayor might be surprised a councillor receiving as little as 1.2 per cent of that support has the same voting pull in the council chamber.
Ford, for his part, insists he’s not trying to neuter progressive councillors by transforming the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa into autocrats after the Oct. 24 elections. (And if what he dubbed a “trial” is successful, other large cities, like Mississauga, Brampton, and Hamilton would get strong mayors after 2026.)
“We’ll get into the details later but … two-thirds of the council can overrule the mayor,” said the premier, who lost to Tory in the 2014 Toronto mayoral race.
“Any mayor needs to be respectful,” he told reporters Wednesday at Queen’s Park, adding that, ultimately, voters have the last word over any mayor’s authority.
“If they aren’t respectful, they won’t be in office in four years.”
With files from 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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