As Toronto city staff say they are approaching a “tipping point” when it comes to the ability to carry out the upcoming municipal election, council has voted to continue challenging legislation that would cut the number of wards nearly by half.
During an emergency meeting at city hall on Thursday, the mayor and a majority of councillors voted to continue fighting Bill 5 in court and to mount a new challenge against Bill 31, which was tabled at Queen’s Park on Wednesday.
“There’s three million people (in Toronto). We have to have a council that can represent them … to operate in this way should be very frightening for everyone in Ontario. It’s chilling for democracy,” Coun. Paula Fletcher said on Thursday.
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Tory called the meeting earlier this week after Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba set aside Bill 5 (the Better Local Government Act) in a ruling.
Belobaba found the government interfered with the right to freedom of expression for both candidates and voters when the province passed the law last month. Belobaba found the reduction of wards in the middle of the Toronto election substantially interfered with municipal voters’ freedom of expression and the “right to cast a vote that can result in effective representation.”
Hours after the ruling, Premier Doug Ford announced his government would recall the legislature to table the bill again. In addition to appealing the decision in court, Ford said the government would invoke the notwithstanding clause for the first time in Ontario’s history.
On Wednesday, the Doug Ford government tabled Bill 31, the Efficient Local Government Act. If passed, the law would reduce the number of council seats to 25 from 47 in the upcoming municipal election. Candidates would have two days after the bill receives royal assent to run under the 25-ward model.
The court is set to hear arguments on staying, or setting aside, Belobaba’s decision on Sept. 18. If that decision is stayed, Bill 5 will come into force and Toronto will have a 25 wards.
However, that would also shut out several incumbents and candidates who didn’t register. The appeal would still work its way through the court, but it’s unclear what would happen if the existing election date remains. Council voted to ask the province to enact regulations that would allow all eligible and interested candidates to run under the 25-ward model.
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During Thursday’s meeting, city clerk Ulli Watkiss said she has retained independent legal counsel to ask if she has the ability to delay the Oct. 22 election date.
“Every day that goes by creates greater uncertainty,” Watkiss said, adding it’s becoming “virtually impossible” to hold a fair and accessible election on Oct. 22.
“The faster we get certainty … the better off we will be.”
Watkiss said city staff are working on contingency plans to accommodate a 25 or 47 ward model, including producing two sets of voter cards. However, they said voting locations are pretty much set regardless of the outcome.
With the changing deadlines, staff have had to reduce the number of advance voting days and won’t be able to hold an advance vote during thanksgiving.
Adding to the confusion for election candidates, city staff said candidates who aren’t registered to run under the 47-ward model cannot raise money or canvass.
Coun. Jim Karygiannis called Thursday’s council meeting “a job protection exercise” and said the city should prepare for a 25-ward model.
“Twenty-five or 47 (wards), I’m ready to run … If you cannot muster the job, then don’t run. There’s people out that are running that they know they can do the job.”
Karygiannis acknowledged the use of the notwithstanding clause is an issue, but added Ford is legally allowed to do so.
“Invoking the notwithstanding clause is like using a sledgehammer to kill an ant, but that is his right,” he said.
“He was democratically elected … people also have the right in the next provincial election not to elect him back.”
Coun. Josh Matlow, who moved a motion that was passed by the majority calling for a special charter for cities, said municipalities need to have more power when it comes to things like elections, governance, land use and other matters to prevent a similar situation from happening again.
Matlow said the City of Toronto needs to “try every possible option,” but admitted council hasn’t heard “a clear path” to legal victory.
“This is not just about Toronto, this is about our Charter … The courts are there to keep our governments in check as well,” he said.
“We know that we are right as far as standing up for our Charter and for our basic ability to run an orderly election.”
Meanwhile, Coun. Joe Mihevc was hopefully after council backed his motion to challenge Bill 31 and continue fighting Bill 5.
“Many said the initial appeal was an uphill battle, but we won that one,” he said.
“I think when you’re in the area of the judiciary, when you are in the area of politics, all things can happen.”