Former Toronto mayors call on Tory to reject expanded 'strong mayor' powers

Toronto Mayor John Tory acknowledged this week that he requested expanded strong mayor powers from the province. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Toronto Mayor John Tory acknowledged this week that he requested expanded strong mayor powers from the province. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A group of former Toronto mayors is urging John Tory to reject a bid to expand the "strong mayor" powers that would give him the ability to pass some bylaws with a minority vote of city council.

The former mayors make the request in a letter to Tory less than a week after the province announced it intends to expand the powers it already granted him. Premier Doug Ford's government has said the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa need the powers to cut red tape and build more housing.

But the former mayors — Art Eggleton, John Sewell, David Crombie, Barbara Hall and David Miller — say the bill puts the "integrity and wellbeing" of Ontario and its residents on the line.

"We are appalled at this attack on one of the essential tenets of our local democracy and a fundamental democratic mechanism: majority rule," the group says in the letter.

"We are fearful of the real substantive risks this change would pose for our city. The principle of majority rule has always been and must continue to be how council conducts the public's business," they add.

Farrell Tremblay
Farrell Tremblay

The expanded powers, which have not yet been passed into law, would give Tory the ability to enact bylaws deemed to align with "provincial priorities" with support from only eight of 25 city councillors.

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

Tory's spokesman Don Peat said Monday that the mayor's office received the letter and is reviewing it.

He said the mayor supports the system and plans to make "very limited" use of the measure.

"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," Peat said in a statement.

Last week the mayor said he asked for the "proactive veto" and defended his request, saying it won't change his fundamental approach with council.

"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."

Chris Mulligan
Chris Mulligan

The strong mayor powers give Tory sweeping control over the city budget 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.

The province 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.

In their letter, the group of former mayors say the province is "revealing its real agenda" with a series of pieces of legislation including the expansion of the strong mayor powers. That includes reducing farmland in favour of urban sprawl and eliminating rules that support affordable communities.

"It is a disturbing future," they write.

They say people and communities are organizing to push back against the province and urge Tory to do the same.

"In that spirit we ask you to join us and begin by, together with council, soundly rejecting Bill 39," they said.

John Sewell said he is angry that the expanded powers weren't discussed during the municipal election.

"You can't run a democracy, where a minority gets to make the decisions," he said.

"It is totally contrary to what democracy is about. It's shocking, that John Tory actually suggested this as a way of making decisions. And of course, he didn't mention it during the election. If he'd said that, I think that would have been the end of his political career right there."

Earlier this year, the mayors banded together to express concern over the new powers and called on city council, and Tory, to debate how the measures would be used at their first meeting following the Oct. 24 municipal election.

The new council will hold its inaugural meeting for the new term this week and the strong mayor powers are not on the agenda.