Toronto city council votes to file legal challenge on provincial law cutting number of wards
Toronto city council has voted to file a legal challenge against a provincial law that reduces the number of council seats by nearly half just months before the municipal election.
Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act, was passed at the Ontario legislature last week following weeks of opposition from councillors and the public who say the move was made without consultations.
The legislation reduces the size of council from 47 to 25 seats and adheres to federal riding boundaries. Dates for council candidates to register for the upcoming election has been pushed back to Sept. 14. Election day is on Oct. 22.
Council voted 27 to 15 to file “an application to challenge the legality of Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act” and to ask for a postponement of the election day if it’s needed in order to support the legal challenge.
Mayor John Tory, who voted in favour of challenging Bill 5, said the province has clear jurisdiction over cities and towns but has voiced his displeasure over how the bill was pushed through with practically no input from citizens and municipal stakeholders.
“We have instructed [City of Toronto] legal staff to challenge this monumental change to our city’s governance in the courts,” Tory said in a written statement Monday evening.
“The majority of Council has been very clear about its position as have I as Mayor and the head of the Council: The province’s process, which lacked any public input whatsoever, is wrong and unacceptable.”
In response to the vote, Premier Doug Ford‘s office said the law is aimed at making Toronto city council more efficient.
Simon Jefferies, a spokesperson for Ford, told Global News in a statement Monday evening that council should have met to discuss gun violence instead.
“Premier Doug Ford sent letters to Mayor Tory urging city hall to use this special meeting to match the provincial government’s $25 million commitment to tackle gun and gang violence in the City of Toronto,” Jefferies wrote.
“It’s disappointing that the politicians down at city hall were more interested in protecting their own jobs than standing up for the safety of their own constituents.”
Last month, city council met and approved resolutions calling for the ban of handgun and ammunition sales in Toronto. It also voted to spend millions on additional CCTV cameras in different parts of Toronto, implementation of the ShotSpotter program in a five-square-mile area of the city, Toronto police overtime costs as a part of the gun violence reduction plan, and community-based violence prevention and response initiatives.
Risk involved in switching back to 47 wards
A report to council by the city clerk’s office said officials have already begun the process of implementing Bill 5 and that a successful court challenge would bring with it “unacceptable levels of risk” and undermine the trust and confidence of candidates and voters.
Premier Doug Ford said in July the move to cut the size of council will enable decisions at city hall to be made “more efficiently and effectively.”
VIDEO: Mayor Tory, Toronto city hall debate potential legal challenge on council cuts
The legislative changes in the Better Local Government Act also eliminate elected chair positions in the regions of Peel, York, Niagara and Muskoka.
During a speech made at the annual conference of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario in Ottawa on Monday, an organization from which the city of Toronto withdrew in 2005, Ford repeated his stance on making local government more efficient, but said he won’t cut other municipalities.
“Let me tell you we are excited about this law, saving taxpayers $25 million and improve decision-making across the city and the feedback we’re getting on this move has been overwhelmingly positive,” Ford said.
“No, we do not – I repeat – we do not have plans for similar legislation in our near future.”
At the same conference, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters that she will bring forth legislation this fall that would prevent the province from changing the makeup of municipal governments without consultation and local approval.
“This is an assault on local democracy, and shows a fundamental lack of respect for municipal governments and local decision-making,” Horwath said.
“New Democrats are going to fight to protect municipalities from this kind of interference in the future.”
Details of the legislation has yet to be released but Horwath said it would require the agreement of local government to make any changes to municipal elections.
The premier caused a stir with the mayor a few days ago after penning two letters is as many days asking for a special meeting on gun violence. Some argued the request to hold another meeting was a distraction from the debate on council cuts.
Local candidate pushes for legal action
Rocco Achampong, a Toronto lawyer who is running for councillor in Ward 13, has brought forward a court application to be heard on Aug. 31 to have the 47 ward election maintained for the 2018 election.
Toronto city council has until Aug. 21 to decide if the city of Toronto will join with Achampong in court.
He said there is a “reasonable likelihood” the injunction could be granted, but acknowledged the province of Ontario controls the structure of municipalities.
The upcoming election is the first since the city of Toronto changed its ward boundary structure, which happened earlier this council term following five years of consultations and studies. In that process, three new wards were created and 47 councillor positions were created, up from 44.
Councillors react to debate on council cuts
York West Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti, who refiled his candidacy papers Monday morning for the upcoming election, said the debate is a waste of time and that councillors should just focus on campaigning instead.
“I think it’s a complete whining session. It’s like a bunch of babies crying that they’re not getting their toys,” Mammoliti told Global News.
“We don’t have any flexibility at all as a municipality. The province has changed the legislation. We should all be out there canvassing instead of whining about our jobs or potentially losing our jobs.”
Scarborough East Coun. Paul Ainslie, who also refiled his election papers, said his major concern is whether constituents will have fair representation under the new ward boundaries.
“Currently I have about 60,000 people. I understand the population of that ward that I’m hoping to represent successfully after Oct. 22 is going to go up to 118,000,” Ainslie said.
“I think most people are concerned about how they are going to be represented. If they are going to be represented adequately. First and foremost, I’m going to need more staff.”
— With files from Nick Westoll
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.