Accused of a 'betrayal' of voters, Tory defends request for expanded 'strong mayor' powers

Toronto Mayor John Tory defended his request to the province for expanded powers under the strong mayor legislation passed by Premier Doug Ford's government earlier this year. A new bill, which has not yet been passed, could give Tory the power to pass items deemed 'provincial priorities' with only a minority of votes on city council.  (Chris Mulligan - image credit)
Toronto Mayor John Tory defended his request to the province for expanded powers under the strong mayor legislation passed by Premier Doug Ford's government earlier this year. A new bill, which has not yet been passed, could give Tory the power to pass items deemed 'provincial priorities' with only a minority of votes on city council. (Chris Mulligan - image credit)

Toronto Mayor John Tory is defending his request to the provincial government to strengthen a key provision of the "strong mayor" powers it has granted him, as some city councillors accuse him of betraying the city's voters.

At a news conference Thursday, Tory said he asked the province to give him a "proactive veto" that gives him the power to pass bylaws deemed to align with provincial priorities with support from only eight of 25 city councillors. He said he made the request shortly after the original legislation was rolled out earlier this summer..

"I think that people do trust me to exercise all the authorities that I have, as I've done for eight years, in a responsible manner," Tory said.

"The fact that these authorities have changed is obviously a significant piece of legislation, but it's not going to change who I am or how I operate with the people on the city council."

Ford grants Tory request

The province came through on Tory's request on Wednesday by introducing a new bill, which would establish the expanded powers. That legislation has not yet passed.

The bill says the powers can be used on bylaws related to building housing, transit-oriented development or infrastructure.

Premier Doug Ford's government introduced the strong mayor powers saying they were required to help speed up new home construction and address the housing crisis in Ontario. But critics have decried them as an over-reach and undemocratic.

The strong mayor powers were awarded to the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa and give them sweeping controls over city budgets as well as staff hiring and firing.

They also mean that if councillors want to change the budget, a two thirds majority vote is required. The new legislation expands on that, giving Tory the option to use that veto more broadly.

Tory pushed back against suggestions that he did not raise the new expanded powers with voters during the municipal election this fall.

"During the course of the election campaign the notion of a strong mayor, and enhanced powers for the strong mayor, was discussed extensively and frequently," he said.

Tory appeared to defend his decision not to broach his request of the province during the election by saying he wasn't sure if the enhanced powers would be granted.

"There was no clarity as to exactly what was going to be the result of those discussions until the new legislation was introduced in the last couple of days," he told reporters Thursday.

Councillors express 'outrage' over new bill

A number of Toronto city councillors have spoken out against the expanded powers, calling on Tory to rescind his request.

Coun. Gord Perks said he was "outraged" by the new bill and that Tory did not consult voters about this change during the election. The expanded abilities are an assault on local democracy, he said.

"It is a betrayal of every single person who went to the polls and voted for a local councillor," he said. "I don't think council or Torontonians are going to take this lying down. I think that the mayor needs to catch his breath, realize he's made a mistake and withdraw this ask."

Mark Bochsler
Mark Bochsler

Coun. Jamaal Myers, who represents Ward 23, Scarborough North, said the changes will set a negative tone for the new term.

"While Mayor Tory might be very responsible in how he exercises these new powers, the next mayor might not be," he said.

"So, the process really matters here. And the mayor knows this. I'm really calling on him to take a step back and really consider the ramifications of what he's actually doing."

Myers said council will no longer be a place were the mayor and councillors negotiate policy through compromise. Instead, it will become a space where council is simply consulted on the mayor's agenda.

"I don't think that's what most people elected their city councilors to do, to be a focus group," he said.

Alejandra Bravo, the new councillor for Ward 9, Davenport, said the changes are without precedent and would spell the end of government decision-making by majority rule.

"The time to propose and debate a change like this was before the election," she said in a statement.

Toronto District School Board
Toronto District School Board

Ausma Malik, who was elected to council last month in Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York, also objected to the expanded strong mayor powers.

"I am disheartened by Mayor Tory's request for this overreaching power," she said in a statement. "I'm also concerned that this request was made in private without any prior discussion in public or conversations with city councillors."

Powers 'tether' city hall to Ford government: expert 

Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus at Toronto Metropolitian University, called the expanded powers "shocking" and said they undermine municipal governments across Ontario.

"It further tethers city hall to the will and the interest and the priorities of the province," he said.

"That almost begs the question, why do we have municipal elections for councillors? Why do we have a municipal government when its supposed role now is to enact provincial priorities."

Siemiatycki said the bill will now turn Tory into the "chief enforcement officer" for the province. He's skeptical about it actually helping the province build more homes, which is the rationale for introducing these powers, he added.

"The housing problem from the vantage point of the public is, 'My rent's too high, and I can't find a house in my price range to buy,'" he said.

"There's nothing in what's being put forward now that eases that and puts any requirements related to affordability in what's going to be built."