Watson will write to Ford opposing strong mayor powers, calling for consultation

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Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, left, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford are shown in this file photo from 2019. Watson will write two letters to the premier sharing council's opposition to the province's strong mayors bill following Wednesday's council meeting. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, left, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford are shown in this file photo from 2019. Watson will write two letters to the premier sharing council's opposition to the province's strong mayors bill following Wednesday's council meeting. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)

Ottawa city council is calling on the province to hit the brakes on its strong mayors bill, raising concerns about a lack of consultation and clarity around the priorities guiding the powers it would grant.

Two motions unanimously supported by councillors during their Wednesday meeting directed Mayor Jim Watson to write to Premier Doug Ford.

One letter will request the province discuss Bill 3, called the "Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, 2022, with the city, public and municipal organizations. The second will express council's opposition to the bill.

"There needs to be consultation before this moves forward any further with people whose voices we represent, our constituents," said Bay Ward councillor Theresa Kavanagh, who moved the first motion.

Turning councillors into 'rubber stamps'

Watson seconded the motion and shared a similar concern.

"There's been a complete lack of consultation and I think it's insulting to the women and men who put their names forward to sit as a councillor," he said. "You don't want to simply be here as rubber stamps."

The bill has passed second reading and been sent to committee by the provincial government. While homes are mentioned in its title, the powers it's set to give the top official in Toronto and Ottawa go well beyond increasing housing.

A mayor could write the budget, reorganize the structure of the city and directly hire department general managers (with a few exceptions), choose the chairs of all committees and boards — including police and health — and veto bylaws if they believe it could "interfere with a prescribed provincial priority."

But those provincial priorities haven't been shared yet.

Kavanagh took issue with that during Wednesday's council meeting.

"One of the concerning aspects of this bill is that the provincial priorities will be spelled out later in the act's regulations," she said.

"We should know the precise language of these priorities before passing a new law that gives the mayor power to uphold them."

The premier has said two-thirds of council could overrule the mayor's veto. He's also shared plans to expand the powers to other municipalities.

Province says it conducted consultations

In a statement to CBC the staff for Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said more than one-third of Ontario's new growth in the next decade is expected to happen in Toronto and Ottawa.

The government did "extensive consultations" with municipalities, experts and people across the province at the beginning of the year, wrote press secretary Victoria Podbielski, pointing to the Provincial Municipal Housing Summit and Rural Housing Roundtable.

The statement did not directly respond to a question about concerns raised by councillors over the fact the provincial priorities have not been spelled out yet.

On Wednesday Liberal MPP Mary-Margaret McMahon tweeted that amendments she suggested to the bill that were "focused on creating affordable housing" were "deemed out of scope & principle" by the committee reviewing it.

"How can housing be out of scope for a bill that is supposed to address the housing crisis?" the Beaches—East York representative asked.

Brian Rosborough, executive director of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), told the committee it didn't have a position on the bill in general, but did call on the government to "engage in broad consultation" about it.

"I also find it a little strange trying to connect affordable housing with more powers for the mayor," Watson said during Wednesday's council meeting. "I'm not sure where that idea came from."

The mayor is not running for re-election, but has urged whoever takes his place not to use the powers.

He described giving too much power to one person as a "dangerous precedent for our democracy."