Ontario to introduce legislation to cut Toronto city council seats by nearly half

Click to play video: 'Doug Ford introducing legislation to reduce size, cost of government'
Doug Ford introducing legislation to reduce size, cost of government
Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he is introducing legislation to reduce the number of city councillors at Toronto's City Hall from 47 to 25 – Jul 27, 2018

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says the province will introduce legislation that aims to reduce the size of Toronto city council by nearly half just months before the fall municipal election.

“We will be introducing legislation that, if passed, would dramatically improve the decision-making process at Toronto city hall,” Ford said at a news conference Friday morning at the Ontario legislature.

“For too long, the people of Toronto have watched city council go around, and around, and around in circles and failed to act on the critical issues facing the city.”

The premier said the reduction in council seats would save the City of Toronto $25.5 million over four years. A Ford spokesperson said the number takes into account how much the city spends on each councillor annually, which is around $290,000 per ward.

“We’re going to streamline Toronto city council. We’re going to align Toronto with federal and provincial boundaries,” Ford said.

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The legislation would reduce the size of council from 47 to 25 seats. Candidates will now have until Sept. 14 to hand in their registration papers.

The deadline to register to run for mayor, councillor and school board trustee positions across Ontario was 2 p.m. on Friday. Election day is on Oct. 22.

The 2018 election is the first since the City of Toronto changed its ward boundary structure, which happened earlier this council term. The last review was done in 2000. Three new wards were created and 47 councillor positions were created, up from 44.

Earlier in the day, Mayor John Tory said he wanted to hold a referendum and that it was “absolutely not right” to have the size of council reduced without public consultation.

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“I’m angry at the process because I think it is disrespectful of the people, most of all, in that I think people, when there’s a major change being made to their civic democracy, deserve to be consulted in one way, shape or form,” Tory told reporters during a news conference at city hall.

Tory said he plans to put forth a motion at city council Friday asking for a referendum question be put on the upcoming election ballot.

Ford and Tory discussed reduction in city council size

When asked by reporters if he had had any discussions with Ford on the reduction in size of city council, Tory said he had heard it “in passing” during a recent meeting with the premier two weeks ago.

“It wasn’t put on the basis that he was planning to do it. He said that he’s talked about it before and I actually sort of dismissed it on the basis of saying, ‘Well, that’s not something that could be done. We’re in the middle of an election campaign’,” Tory said.

“The matter dropped at that stage because I didn’t have the sense he was pursuing it, either.”

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Ford said Thursday he didn’t see this type of reaction when the idea was proposed to him.

“Not only did we speak to him once, we consulted numerous times their staff and we never had this reaction,” Ford said.

“Matter of fact, deep down, and I’m not too sure where the mayor is going with this. He knows less politicians is good. It’ll make his job a lot easier. He’ll be able to get things done. All the politicians down there know it.”

Graphic: Toronto City Council Comparison

The proposed legislative changes, which have been included in the Better Local Government Act, would also eliminate elected chair positions in the regions of Peel, York, Niagara and Muskoka.

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Former Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario leader Patrick Brown is slated to run for Peel chair and former Liberal cabinet minister Steven Del Duca in York.

Global News obtained an internal email Thursday evening sent to Progressive Conservative government members containing “talking points” about the proposed changes.

It said a higher number of councillors makes it difficult to “get things done.”

“An over-sized council makes it almost impossible to build meaningful consensus,” the email said.

“As a result, infrastructure crumbles, the housing backlogs grows and transit isn’t built.”

Ford claims public was ‘consulted’ during election campaign

When asked by reporters about a possible referendum, the premier said the public was already consulted about the reduction in the size of government during the election campaign.

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“I think we were pretty clear on the election. When I talked to thousands and thousands of people, the referendum was pretty clear,” Ford said.

“Our mandate was pretty clear. Reduce the size and cost of government. Put money back in the people’s pockets and get things done. People are tired of watching city hall. It’s like a comedy show down at city hall.”

Throughout the provincial election campaign, Ford had promised to scrap the controversial sex-ed curriculum as he said it was done with little consultation. The Progressive Conservative government earlier this month said Ontario schools will go back to teaching the same lesson plans they had in the late 1990s this fall.

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Support and opposition to reduced Toronto council size

Reaction to the legislation was swift from provincial and municipal politicians alike.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in a written statement late Thursday that the proposed legislation would mean “less accountability and transparency.”

She said the proposed changes weren’t a part of the provincial election campaign earlier this year and there wasn’t any consultation process.

WATCH: Horwath slams Ford says he’s ‘dragging Ontario into the past’ 

Click to play video: 'Horwath slams Ford says he’s ‘dragging Ontario into the past’'
Horwath slams Ford says he’s ‘dragging Ontario into the past’

Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevc called Ford’s plan a “destructive attack on local democracy” and former Toronto mayor David Miller said the move to cut councillors is “totally against the spirit and language of the City of Toronto Act.”

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Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam cited the amalgamation of the City of Toronto and six constituent municipalities as an example of how reducing size didn’t reduce costs.

“We also know that amalgamation or reduction of council in the past has not produced any savings whatsoever. Studies from universities, studies from think tanks afterwards have also said exactly the same thing,” Wong-Tam said on Friday.

“We have fought the mega city. It did not create better government for us and for them to want to hoist this upon us again is an affront to our democracy.”

Progress Toronto, a pro-democracy advocacy group, has launched a petition asking the public to “stop Ford’s takeover of Toronto politics.”

“He is abusing his power as premier and he is messing with our political system in the middle of an election to try to control Toronto City Hall from Queen’s Park,” the petition reads.

“We need to act now to stop Ford’s takeover of Toronto.”

VIDEO: Toronto MP and former councillor Adam Vaughan rips Ford plan on reducing council seats

Click to play video: 'Toronto MP and former councillor Adam Vaughan rips Ford plan on reducing council seats'
Toronto MP and former councillor Adam Vaughan rips Ford plan on reducing council seats

However, not everyone was opposed to the reduction in council seats. Councillor Jim Karygiannis released a statement saying the proposal will foster better working relations with provincial and federal politicians when the boundaries are aligned.

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“When the old boundaries were set in 1997, it was two City Councillors for every Federal riding and there was more equal representation. It is time that we set our boundaries similar to the Federal and Provincial constituencies for truly equal representation,” Karygiannis said in a statement.

“This will reduce the number of municipal politicians and will save the City over ten million dollars.”

Ford supporters on council speak out

Like-minded councillors who agree with Ford’s plan said during a news conference Friday afternoon that decision-making at city hall will be vastly improved and constituents will now have a fair vote.

“This is not about what you and I want. The Supreme Court of Canada has said that voters have the right to have a balanced, weighted vote,” Councillor Justin Di Ciano said.

“That’s why this process came about. So I’m not sure how a referendum of what our ideals, thoughts are, can override the supreme court ruling that says everyone’s vote has to be worth the same amount.”

Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, an ally of Ford, said the premier is simply in touch with what the public wants.

“The premier is right. His gut instinct is right and he’s not the first premier ever to use a majority to do what he’s wanted to do,” Mammoliti said.

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VIDEO: Major changes potentially coming to Toronto City Hall

Click to play video: 'Major changes potentially coming to Toronto City Hall'
Major changes potentially coming to Toronto City Hall

Ford’s nephew, Councillor Michael Ford, said his uncle’s plan was publicly known and was not a surprise.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about this. This is something that has been in this building for a long time, a conversation that has not just begun now,” Ford said.

“It was a conversation that this premier and this government heard out talking to tens of thousands of Torontonians over the past three months.”

Councillor Michael Thompson admitted he thought the reduction of city council size would happen in time for the 2022 municipal election, but said Ford acted more swiftly.

“The legislation allows him to basically act in this way. He’s not doing anything illegal. I don’t hear any of you saying that,” Thompson told reporters.

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“He is being basically steadfast with respect to his position that he’s always maintained that the size of council needs to be addressed in order to be more efficient, more effective and address the issue around cost.”

City officials say there will be implementation challenges

During a city council meeting on Friday, city staff said there will be logistical challenges in getting everything in order for the Oct. 22 election date.

“We cannot run an election with a nomination day that ends on September 14th and be ready to have an advance vote on October 6th,” Toronto City Clerk Ulli Watkiss told members of council, adding extensive ballot machine testing and ballot printing deadlines won’t make that timeline.

Watkiss said major projects that will need to be done by city staff include developing a communications plan to inform Toronto residents about the changes, working with provincial officials to revise the preliminary voters list, updating all voting technology to process the ward boundaries, reviewing vendor contracts and implementing enhanced training for election workers.

She also cautioned that if staff can’t change all the voting tabulators in time, elections staff may need to count ballots by hand.

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Watkiss said it typically takes eight to 10 months to prepare for a municipal election and now staff are facing a deadline of less than three months.

She said a lot is still unknown because city staff haven’t seen the proposed provincial legislation. Watkiss said they weren’t consulted on the changes until Friday morning, something that hasn’t happened in her time as a municipal employee.

“In my 30-odd years as a city clerk, I have never been in a situation where I’ve been provided with legislation that has not had extensive review with the clerks’ offices in the province that they impact — ever,” she said.

City staff were asked if a referendum question about the issue could be put on the ballot, but they said under the province’s current laws the deadline to do so passed in March.

Council will again Monday morning to continue debating their response to Ford’s announcement.

— With files from Nick Westoll and Travis Dhanraj

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