Hitting pause on plan to cut Toronto city council 'a sign of strength,' Tory says in letter to Ford

Toronto Mayor John Tory, left, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford are photographed together at Queen's Park in Toronto on July 9, 2018. Photo from The Canadian Press.

Toronto Mayor John Tory has penned an open letter to Premier Doug Ford, imploring him to put a plan to cut the number of city councillors nearly in half "on hold" until after the fall municipal election.

The letter, sent to the premier late Thursday night, strikes a conciliatory but urgent tone. Tory stresses the need for a temporary resolution to the matter, which has divided city council and strained the relationship between Queen's Park and city hall.

"The proposed legislation is contrary to common sense in terms of both the practicality of altering a live election process and in terms of our ongoing provincial-municipal relationship," Tory said of Bill 5. The legislation would reduce the number of wards in Toronto from 47 to 25 and cancel four regional chair elections, including in York and Peel regions. 

"Something as fundamentally important as an election — a primary mechanism of civic democracy — should not be changed without public input and in the absence of a clear process or robust understanding of public impacts and costs," he continued.

Ford has moved quickly to push the bill through the Legislature. This week, his government passed a motion that will see it bypass the committee stage. That, in short, means that neither the public nor relevant experts will have a chance to provide input before the legislation is passed into law. 

Premier responds to letter

Ford said in a statement Friday that his government's plan will help council make decisions and deliver services "more efficiently and effectively."

"An oversized council makes it almost impossible to build meaningful consensus and get things done," he said. "As a result, infrastructure crumbles, the housing backlog grows and transit isn't built."

Ford, a failed Toronto mayoral candidate and single-term city councillor, has said he had wanted to make the change since his days at city hall despite not mentioning his plan during the spring election.

But he said in his statement that he consulted with "thousands of people" during the campaign "who feel that in its current form, Toronto City Council is dysfunctional."

"I have always championed the idea of reducing the size of council in order to deliver better government for the people of Toronto," he said.

Tory, as well as a faction of progressive city councillors staunchly opposed to the cut in council size, have derided the process put in motion by the newly elected Progressive Conservative government as undemocratic. With an election looming on Oct. 22, a move to 25 wards would plunge Toronto into electoral chaos, opponents have argued. 

Ford and supporters of the legislation have insisted that Ford's frequent references to reducing the size of government on the campaign trail were, in fact, foreshadowing that he intended to slash the number of councillors in the city. At no point during the campaign, however, did Ford mention any specific actions he would take, let alone the details of Bill 5. 

Tory did not let that fact go unmentioned in his letter.

"This was not raised as a campaign issue by any party and therefore in my view, no party has a mandate for such unilateral action," he said.

He also took the opportunity to allude to a possible legal challenge from the city, calling the bill "possibly contrary to the law." The city's solicitor is currently considering the "validity and constitutionality" of Bill 5 and is scheduled to report back to council at a special meeting set for Aug. 20, the letter said. 

Tory defends response to province

Tory has taken substantial criticism for his response to the province's unexpected move, with some councillors characterizing it as indecisive. Jennifer Keesmaat, Tory's most-recognizable challenger for the mayor's seat, even cited his reaction to Ford's announcement as one of the reasons she's joined the race.

At a news conference on Friday afternoon, Tory defended his actions thus far, saying that a constructive working relationship with Queen's Park is necessary on a wide range of issues not necessarily connected to council size.

"I, as the mayor, have to focus on the fact that a continuing, sound relationship — as good as it can be given that we have disagreements, including on this, and we will have others I'm sure — is necessary to move this city forward on other issues like transit and policing and other things," he told reporters. 

He added that he feels there is widespread support for his idea of a binding referendum on the question of council size. In his letter to Ford, he said it would "let the people speak."

"To me, hitting the pause button is a sign of strength. I would respectfully suggest that the legitimacy of your government's position dramatically increases if supported by a legitimate process," Tory said. 

"A referendum campaign would allow for a full opportunity for the public to be consulted and heard."