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Toronto, Ottawa mayors can pass laws with only minority support after ‘shocking’ move by Doug Ford government


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Toronto, Ottawa mayors can pass laws with only minority support after ‘shocking’ move by Doug Ford government

Mayor John Tory convincing Premier Doug Ford’s government to make his new strong mayor powers even stronger is being called a power grab by some councillors and an “unprecedented attack” on local government by at least one political expert.

Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark on Wednesday introduced “strong mayor” legislation allowing mayors of Toronto and Ottawa to force passage of bylaws that align with provincial priorities “if more than one-third of council members vote in favour.”

That means Tory will be able to enact some policies with the support of only eight other council members — far less than the simple majority required now of the 26-member council of himself plus 25 ward representatives.

That gives the mayors more power and sidelines councillors even further than the strong-mayor system introduced in July by Clark, which gave the mayors a veto power over provincially aligned council decisions that could be overturned only by two-thirds or more council.

The province has framed the changes as necessary to allow the mayors of Ontario’s big cities to get more housing built. Queen’s Park has set a goal of constructing 1.5 million homes over the next decade.

“Provincial priorities include building more homes, which could, for example, involve expanding the footprint of transit-oriented communities so more people can live, work and play near the convenience of public transit,” the province said.

At Queen’s Park, Clark said the enhanced powers for the strong mayors came “out of our discussions with Toronto.”

“These proposals are bold, I’m not going to walk away from that,” said Clark, adding they would “provide some certainty” so a strong mayor could more easily pass important measures through council.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Tory’s office confirmed that he had asked the province for the latest powers before the Oct. 24 municipal election. His office said the issue “came up in discussions with the province about how to get more housing built faster.”

“We raised this change with the province to make sure we can get more housing built as quickly as possible, to avoid NIMBYism, and to help make sure this new system works as efficiently as possible,” it said.

The statement stressed that the new powers only apply to issues that the province and mayor deem priorities, and asserted that Tory would only use them “when they are necessary to move forward housing” and other key issues. The mayor’s office said Tory’s “leadership style and his overall approach to City Council won’t change — he will continue to work with City Council to get things done for the people of Toronto.”

Coun. Josh Matlow (Ward 12, Toronto—St. Paul’s) said he was “horrified” by the province’s proposed move, which he described as an “anti-democratic assault by Doug Ford on Toronto, on our city.”

Matlow, a vocal critic of Tory’s, said the idea of allowing the mayor to pass bylaws with minority support flies in the face of basic principles of democracy. He noted that the premier himself needs a majority of MPPs to pass provincial legislation.

“To pass a motion with only a third of council is just, in no uncertain terms, undemocratic,” he said. “That’s not how any legislative body in Canada works. That’s not how Queen’s Park works.”

Coun. Gord Perks, a longtime progressive critic of Tory, said he fears the move will make it easier for “the premier and his developer friends” to override local opposition like the pushback that halted demolition of the Dominion Foundry.

“As a councillor I’m elected to represent an area of the city,” said the Parkdale—High Park representative. “Now my role in representing them has been erased.”

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He called Tory’s request for extra powers shocking and unnecessary.

“I’m flabbergasted, from a mayor who never lost a vote at council and who campaigned for a dozen different (city council) candidates, you just just have to wonder — how much power does he need?”

Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus of politics at Toronto Metropolitan University, said the new powers amount to a “shocking, unprecedented attack not only on local democracy, but on local government itself.”

Siemiatycki said the effect of the new legislation will be the province effectively “putting Toronto and Ottawa under trusteeship,” and reducing their mayors to the title of “chief provincial enforcement officer.”

“The province will undoubtedly tell municipalities what existing bylaws it wants removed or modified; and will use threat of withheld financial support to get mayoral compliance,” he predicted.

“This amounts to a provincial takeover of city hall.”

NDP MPP Jessica Bell (University-Rosedale) said “Doug Ford is behaving in a very undemocratic way by changing Toronto and Ottawa’s powers so the mayor can pass bylaws and legislation with just one-third of city council approval.”

“Everything we know about representative democracy is that you need a majority to get a bill passed. This flies in the face of civic engagement in elected official power in the basic tenets of democracy,” said Bell.

Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said “no disrespect to the premier, but he’s the premier of Ontario not the mayor of Ontario.”

Green Leader Mike Schreiner said “this is strong mayor on steroids.”

“It’s actually bringing in minority rule when it comes to the elected councils that we have a strong mayor only needing one third plus one vote,” said Schreiner.

Some of the new city councillors who officially took office Tuesday are now digesting major changes to their powers even since they were elected Oct. 24.

“The province seems intent on taking away our ability to do business as usual,” said Coun. Amber Morley (Ward 3 Etobicoke-Lakeshore), “and to empower (the province) to ultimately be the decision-makers, so we have to navigate that.”

But Morley, a progressive, said she’s keeping an open mind, given Tory’s pledge to continue working collaboratively. She also noted that strong-mayor powers would also be available to a future progressive mayor if one follows Tory.

With files from Robert Benzie

David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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