Burlington Mayor Responds After Strong Mayor Power Kerfuffle

By Kyle Marshall, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward has delegated some of her “Strong Mayor” powers to city council after three councillors requested it.

The motion was brought forward by Ward 1 Councillor Kelvin Galbraith, Ward 3 Councillor Rory Nisan, and Ward 4 Councillor Shawna Stolte, during a session of city council on March 19 and was amended during a special council meeting on March 26.

Premier Doug Ford and his Conservatives have given Strong Mayor powers to 46 municipalities since 2022 when the powers were first given to Ottawa and Toronto.

The new municipal powers can only be used for certain things, as outlined in the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, passed by the provincial government in September of 2022.

With these powers, Strong Mayors can veto specific bylaws, personally name a chief administrative officer (CAO), hire or fire most department and division heads and draw up budgets, among other things.

It should be noted that these powers were only given to those mayors of cities and/or towns who agreed to help the province meet their objective of building 1.5 million homes by 2031.

The City of Burlington accepted that pledge in 2023, agreeing to a goal of building 29,000 homes in that time.

In the motion memorandum, the three councillors requested that Meed Ward delegate the powers she was granted under the amended Municipal Act.

Specifically, the powers they suggested be delegated include appointing a chief administrative officer as well as chairs and vice-chairs for local boards; forming, dissolving, and designating tasks for council committees and appointing their chairs and vice-chairs; hiring the heads of municipal divisions and changing the organizational structure of the municipality.

“The Mayor has been clear that she does not intend to use the Strong Mayor powers, stating in an interview for InHalton that what municipalities actually need are ‘strong city powers,’ adding that those can then be exercised by the majority of one’s council, building consensus,” the memorandum goes on to say.

No public record has been found of Meed Ward saying that she had no intention of using the Strong Mayor powers.

“The motion solidifies this commitment, enshrining our commitment to local democracy and the principle of majority rule. The delegation of these powers is consistent with best practices for corporate boards, where majority rule exists,” says the memorandum.

Also included in this motion is a direction to the executive director of the city legal staff to consult with external legal counsel on the state of any legal challenges to Strong Mayor powers in the province and whether they have any chance of success.

The councillors who brought forth this motion were inspired by a recent article from Metroland Media, which said that several municipalities had already delegated some of their Strong Mayor powers, including Aurora, Chatham-Kent, Guelph, Innisfil, Kingston, Kitchener, Richmond Hill, Oshawa, Whitchurch-Stouffville, and Sault St. Marie.

Other Strong Mayor abilities can’t be delegated back to council, which includes submitting the annual municipal budget as well as veto authority over bylaws that a mayor thinks will not help advance provincial priorities, like building new housing.

Under the Municipal Act, whenever a mayor uses these new powers, it must be posted online for transparency. Meed Ward has not used the Strong Mayor powers independent of council as of April 6; after some misunderstandings and reports that the mayor had used the Strong Mayor powers a number of times, the city released an updated document showing “Mayoral Decisions” alongside a column titled “Details” with links to council meeting minutes. The council meeting minutes show council votes for each of the decisions that were ultimately signed off by the mayor.

Prior to the Strong Mayor powers being implemented, the mayor signed off on council decisions as a matter of course, as the head of council. That has not changed. What has changed is the wording under which the mayor signs, which reads for these listed decisions, “Under Bill 3, the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, 2022, which amended the Municipal Act, 2001…” for those decisions for which the mayor might use the Strong Mayor powers.

When City Clerk Samantha Yew was asked about Meed Ward’s use of the Strong Mayor powers, she replied via email, “The website is up to date. The documents attached reflect the decisions."

And what the website and attached documents show is that none of the Strong Mayor decisions were made independent of council approval, with the possible exception of decision number 02-2024, which is not available to the public due to the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, 1990. [Editor's update: at the council meeting this week, Meed Ward stated that she will issue a new mayoral decision to direct the city clerk to release decision 02-2024 publicly; this was a direction to staff to negotiate the contract with the new city manager, which could not be released at the time, but can now.]

Most of the decisions listed were for bylaw approvals; also listed is the decision to appoint the new city manager on Feb. 16.

Documents show that special council closed sessions were undertaken before Hassaan Basit was named as city manager, effective April 22, taking over for Tim Commisso, who announced back in October that he would not seek renewal of his five-year contract.

Commisso was appointed city manager on July 1, 2019, and also served as interim city manager from January 2019.

“We have a new city manager starting soon which is the most prominent role within our organization and I feel it is best to have a democratic rule over the performance of this position as in the past before the Strong Mayor powers were instilled upon us,” Councillor Galbraith said in an emailed statement.

“I feel that leadership staff can and will feel intimidated to bring forward their best work and professional opinions to a mayor that holds the power to release them at any point with veto powers alone.”

Councillor Nisan brought this motion forward with his fellow councillors because he feels that these powers are not democratic and are dysfunctional, despite the fact that the mayor has yet to use these powers.

“I brought this motion forward, along with Councillors Galbraith and Stolte, because the Strong Mayor powers are clearly anti-democratic and a cause of dysfunction at the city,” he said in an emailed statement.

“The mayor has said that she does not need these powers, so I am hopeful they will be delegated expeditiously in order to restore council to its high-functioning status and provide a stable atmosphere at the city.”

Nisan went on, “We are a strong council making significant progress for Burlington, but the community survey showed some gaps in accountability for council. The restoration of majority rule on staff decisions will go a long way to improving democratic accountability at city hall.

“I was elected to make decisions at the council table, not to receive them,” Nisan continued. “I'm accountable to the 4988 residents who voted in my ward in 2022 and everyone who resides in Ward 3.”

According to the Municipal Act, 2001, the first item listed under the role of council is to “(a) to represent the public and to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality.” Interestingly, four out of the remaining six items note that the responsibility of council is to “the municipality” and its interests. The other two items outline the responsibility of the council to ensure that the necessary policies and procedures are in place for council to do its job and to carry out duties relevant to the Municipal Act, 2001, and other relevant legislature.

Councillor Stolte could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

Ward 2 Councillor Lisa Kearns also outlined her concerns over the Strong Mayor powers in a letter to Burlington residents on April 4.

In it, she says that these Strong Mayor powers put into question a balance of power that is crucial to the nature of local government.

She also says that council should have been more vigilant on how much they could push back on these powers and should have more vocally commended those mayors who have delegated theirs.

“It is a dangerous mix for one person to have the unilateral ability to hire or fire senior staff, configure decision-making committees of council and the immovable powers of dictating the city budget,” Kearns said in her letter.

“Imagine being a civil servant carrying out the work supported by council as a whole…then, whammo, a mayor could come in and tell you to go in a different direction that aligns with their agenda.”

“Of course, anyone who wants to keep their job would bend to the political will. And that is the crux, staff aren’t political,” Kearns continued.

“They operate under the checks and balances that the city manager gatekeeps to ensure that resourcing and finances remain in check with what the council as a whole makes political decisions on. This is how democracy works.”

Meed Ward, who said she would respond to the request by the April 16 council meeting, initially stated on her website, “I welcome any conversation about democracy, governance and how council can continue to work together in a collaborative and consultative way.”

“I welcome Council to make any requests of me they feel are important and support Council in making this request. That is why I voted in favour of the motion that was approved unanimously by Council today. I will take the time to give it the thoughtful consideration it deserves.”

On April 10, Meed Ward released a letter outlining her plans to delegate some of the Strong Mayor powers, as per council’s request, despite noting in her open letter to council and the community, “It has appeared to me to be politically performative to delegate the three powers…as these can be undelegated at any time.”

Meed Ward delegated the responsibility of organizational structure and staffing to the incoming city manager; powers of establishing or dissolving committees, appointing chairs and vice-chairs of committees, and assigning functions to committees where committees are made up only of council members, to council.

She does note, though, that “Given that Council has, by unanimous vote, already established the committees of Council…delegating these duties to Council is redundant.” The next paragraph goes on to allow that “Council may wish to make changes to the existing structure, and so the duties…have been delegated to Council.”

These delegations reflect the first instances of Meed Ward using the Strong Mayor powers.

Amid the seemingly tumultuous times at city council, key city staff have also been departing in recent months, including Executive Director of Community Planning, Regulation and Mobility Brynn Nheiley, and Sheila Jones, Executive Director of Strategy, Risk and Accountability.

City clerk Kevin Arjoon has also departed, replaced by Samantha Yew, as well as Director of Corporate Communications and Engagement Kwab Ako-Adjei, who left in the fall and is now Assistant Director for the president of Centennial College.

The Burlington city manager's office confirmed the departures of Jones and Nheiley, but said that Strong Mayor powers have not been a factor in the change in leadership roles at the city.

To view the complete list of Mayor Meed Ward’s decisions under the Municipal Act, click here.

Update notice: the editor has added a note to reflect that Mayor Meed Ward this week stated that she would direct the city clerk to release documents that were not able to be in the public realm previously, as well as a sentence noting that no public statement has been found where Meed Ward stated that she had no intention of using the Strong Mayor powers.

Kyle Marshall, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Burlington Local-News.ca