Toronto city council not against strong mayor system, but wants more powers in certain areas

·4 min read
Toronto's city hall building is seen through letters of the TORONTO sign in Nathan Phillips Square. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Toronto's city hall building is seen through letters of the TORONTO sign in Nathan Phillips Square. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Toronto city council will not ask the Ontario government to abandon plans to impose a strong mayor system on Toronto, councillors decided on Thursday.

Instead, they decided to ask the province to consult with the city about how it governs itself and to grant it more powers in keeping with municipal governments that operate under strong mayor systems.

The motion, proposed by Coun. Jennifer McKelvie, passed 23 to 2. Mayor John Tory did not speak to the motion. Josh Matlow and Denzil Minnan-Wong voted against it.

Council said it wants to be consulted about areas where it has previously wanted greater autonomy and decision making power. These areas include traffic safety measures, planning and housing matters, cannabis and liquor licence application approvals, revenue raising and budget measures, including revenue tools that are used in every municipal system that has a strong mayor model.

"The mayor is is elected by all the people in the city," Coun. Gary Crawford, the city's budget chief, said on Thursday.

Crawford, who voted in favour of the motion, said the additional powers would enable Toronto mayors to make "tough decisions"  when it comes to things like the budget, which he described as "grueling and grinding process." that involves constant compromise. He said consensus needs to be built but more information about the strong mayor system is needed.

"I'm supportive of a strong mayor but we need to see what that is. I don't know what's coming before us. I don't know what the premier has in mind," he said.

Crawford said the city is moving into a "new financial post-COVID reality" and he is worried about the numbers.

"We are moving into very challenging number of years," he said.

Earlier this week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford proposed the idea of a strong mayor system, saying his Progressive Conservative government would like to have such a system in place before municipal elections are held in October.

"I just think it's the right thing to do since all the responsibility falls on the mayor. They're accountable for everything. But they have the same single vote as a single councillor. And no matter if it's a good decision or a tough decision that they make, they have to be accountable," Ford said.

Ford said such a system would give mayors the ability to make "appropriate changes." Two thirds of a council would be able to overrule a mayor under such a system, he said.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

Matlow, who had proposed a motion that would have asked the province not to proceed with its plans, said the idea of a strong mayor system is not about autonomy that would give the city more power to provide services to Toronto residents, or about land use planning that would enable the city to build more housing.

"It's a good narrative. It's a good spin. But that's not what this is about. What this is about is consolidating the power on council into one person's hands," he said.

Coun. Mike Layton said the debate on the strong mayor system is not a referendum on Tory himself or his leadership, or an argument about left or right, but a debate over the importance of every vote cast in municipal elections.

"In my mind, this is about democracy," he said. "It's about ensuring representation that all of the votes that were cast for all of the individual councillors in this room mean something."

Councillor calls for open mind

Coun. Brad Bradford, who represents Ward 19, Beaches-East York, said such a system would enable a mayor to do more faster. He said it's important to have an open mind about the idea.

"Well, I think it's an idea that warrants consideration.  think there are instances at city hall where it could help us get things done faster," Bradford told CBC's Metro Morning on Thursday.

"The mayor runs and campaigns on a citywide agenda. Sometimes that can be difficult to execute with the system that we have now," he said.

"Whether we are talking about housing, or transportation, or affordability, he has a mandate to drive that forward, and we are there to advocate for our communities, to build consensus to work together. But there are probably a few instances you can point it where we could probably get done more if we had a strong mayor system."

For example, if a strong mayor system was in place, Bradford said the mayor may have been able to make a decision on the legalization of rooming houses in Toronto.

Also, Bradford said the mayor could help to ensure the city builds affordable housing, even in the face of opposition from homeowners who do not want it in their neighbourhoods.

Stop interfering, former mayor tells province

Former Toronto mayor David Miller spoke out against such a system on Twitter on Wednesday, telling the province to let the city govern itself.

"The province needs to stop interfering with Toronto, and return to the principles underlying the City of Toronto Act," Miller tweeted.

"The City of Toronto is the fourth or fifth largest government in Canada by budget and population, and is more than capable of self-government."

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