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Why Toronto city councillors are running for the exits and what that says about civic democracy


Why Toronto city councillors are running for the exits and what that says about civic democracy

Wanted: Toronto city councillors.

Must work a minimum of 60 unpredictable hours a week, including evenings and weekends; often attend nine-hour meetings as well as numerous press conferences, ceremonies and social functions, including backyard barbecues and high school commencements.

Must have a high tolerance for abuse and invective.

Occasional violence.

Pay is a flat rate, not commensurate with education, experience, hours worked, customer satisfaction or missions accomplished.

No wonder Toronto councillors are running for the exits — seven of them so far.

While that opens up opportunities for seven fresh faces and new voices, it means Toronto is losing a cadre of seasoned politicians as the city emerges from a pandemic that saw revenues tank and expenses soar, creating an ongoing fiscal challenge the new council will have to tackle almost from the moment members are sworn in. Change is fundamental to democracy, but the mass exodus raises the question of whether the city can attract the right candidates. In the age of the Great Resignation and volatile public discourse, is being a city councillor a coveted role anymore?

Councillors say the volume of work after the number of wards was cut from 47 to 25 in 2018 has been overwhelming, and is being done in the context of troubling changes in Canada’s political culture that have resulted in vicious personal and sometimes violent attacks on elected officials.

“If you want to have a life other than your job, you can’t really be a city councillor,” said John Filion (Ward 18, Willowdale).

“The job burns people out.”

And it raises the question of whether it’s time to give councillors a raise.

The basic income for Toronto city councillors in 2022 has been set at $120,502, excluding benefits, and $202,948 for the mayor.

All of it is taxable, and elected officials in Toronto do not earn extra stipends for serving on boards and committees, except for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and the Housing Services Corp.

While public service salaries over $100,000 tend to trigger reflexive outrage, raises for Toronto councillors have long been limited to bumps no greater than the annual increase in Toronto’s Consumer Price Index, despite the dramatic increase in the size of wards in 2018.

In fact, many things have shot up dramatically in recent years: Toronto’s population, commercial and residential development, and the complexity of issues like affordable housing and providing services for sudden influxes of refugees and the homeless.

In the private sector, councillors could be earning between $150,000 and $250,000, depending on their education, background and experience, says Randy Quarin, senior partner at IQ Partners Inc., a Toronto-based executive search firm and recruitment agency.

“They’re not compensated at the same level as they would be in other industries, and I would even say at other levels of government as well,” said Quarin.

The base income for an MP in the same wards, with the same borders and number of constituents, is $189,500.

Salaries for MPPs have been frozen for 14 years and currently stand at $116,500. In June, Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner, J. David Wake, suggested Ontario should consider lifting the freeze on MPP salaries.

Premier Doug Ford recently got around it by naming 73 of 83 MPPs in the Progressive Conservative caucus as parliamentary assistants. The appointments come with extra duties and a $16,600 annual pay raise.

Among the seven councillors who are leaving, Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 13, Toronto Centre) and Michael Ford (Ward 1, Etobicoke North) made the leap into provincial politics. Joe Cressy (Ward 10, Spadina—Fort York), Mike Layton (Ward 11, University-Rosedale) and Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 16, Don Valley East) said they wanted to spend more time with their families. Ana Bailão (Ward 9, Davenport) said she’s ready for a change. Filion, 72, is retiring after 40 years in municipal politics.

Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus of politics at Toronto Metropolitan University, said there’s more at play in the seven departures than idiosyncratic factors.


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He and others cite Doug Ford’s decision to slash the size of council, nearly doubling the size of constituencies, as the main reason councillors may not be as motivated as they otherwise would be to sign up for another four years of public service. The volume of work means they are less in touch with the people they joined politics to serve.

“I think a lot of councillors were starting to feel that they were getting cut off from the kind of appealing street-level grassroots quality of local government,” said Siemiatycki.

Siemiatycki said it’s no coincidence that most of the councillors who are leaving have the greatest workloads because of the amount of development in their wards.

But he doesn’t think the current pay package is discouraging qualified, capable people from running for office

“Most politicians pursue public office, especially at the local level, because of a commitment to service and a commitment to make their communities better,” he said.

“I think that what’s prompting most of them to leave is the sense that they can’t deliver and fulfil the idealism that brought them into public office in the first place.”

Minnan-Wong agrees people don’t run for office for the money — he didn’t. But he says a higher compensation package might attract more professionals — for example, doctors and engineers.

“You have to attract them away from their other professional assignments,” said Minnan-Wong, who is himself a lawyer.

He said that given the number of people leaving at the same time, the city might want to consider exit interviews, to collect more detailed information about the reasons for the exodus.

Siemiatycki and councillors said another reason for the loss may be found in the changing tone of political debate in Canada, which is becoming more polarized, resulting in vitriolic and even violent attacks.

“Nobody wants that much anger directed at you for trying to do a good job and it’s a little out of control,” said Coun. Paula Fletcher, who is running again in Ward 14 Toronto-Danforth.

Filion has twice been subjected to violence during this last term. In 2019 a man with a pipe tried to force his way into his home. Three weeks later, someone fired bullets into his home and car. No one has been arrested. Filion has since moved.

Siemiatycki cites rocks being thrown at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail in 2021, and the attacks on Filion as a new and unacceptable risk for elected officials.

“It’s almost like there’s a danger-pay quality to serving in public office, and in government. The stakes have been raised by the level of hostility and vitriol and physical threats against public officials,” he said.

“Those who contribute to that climate, either as politicians themselves or in the mass media or on social media — they have a lot of culpability for this.”

Coun. Shelley Carroll (Ward 17, Don Valley North) is hoping that the mayor next term will entertain the idea of a governance review committee to look at finding ways of improving the job.

She said that her children are grown, and although she is an active grandparent, she has more guilt-free time to devote to the job than others whose children are younger.

“Let’s make this manageable for councillors,” she said.

Jay Goldberg, Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, is opposed to the idea of a pay increase for Toronto councillors.

“With Torontonians facing high inflation, high living costs and finding it tough to make ends meet, now is not the time to raise the salaries of city councillors, who are already firmly on the Sunshine List,” said Goldberg.

The Sunshine List includes all public sector employees earning more than $100,000 a year, a figure that was set in 1996.

Siemiatycki says the departures present an opportunity for more women and visible minorities to be elected.

“This time we’re going to have a lot of new faces on council,” he said.

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