Toronto city council has voted to double its office staffing budgets in order to accommodate larger wards and constituent calls, councillors say.
In an 18-to-eight vote, council voted to increase the maximum every councillor is allowed to spend on staff to $482,000. Under the 44-ward system in place up until the 2018 election, councillors could spend $241,000.
Also, every ward got a general office budget increase of more than $16,500 to accommodate increased costs, such as newsletter printing and mailings. The previous office budget for every ward was $33,420.
The decisions were two of many aimed at “recalibrating” Toronto’s governance system to reflect that there are now 25 wards. The City of Toronto was set to elect 47 councillors, but Premier Doug Ford announced at the end of July — hours before nominations were set to close — that his government would move to reduce the number of council seats to 25 through the Better Local Government Act.
At the time, the provincial government said the move would make governing more efficient and save tax money.
Coun. Paul Ainslie, who introduced the motion that was ultimately approved, said the increase is required to have more staff to respond to more residents. He said he has questioned the logic behind the Ontario government’s decision.
“If you’re reducing the number of councillors, fine. But doubling the size of our wards — the number one thing I heard from residents knocking on doors was, ‘How are you going to get back to us? Are you going to get back to us?'” Ainslie said, noting his office has a 24-hour response standard for constituents.
“I’ve worked at all three levels of government … I find at the municipal level, from sunrise to sunset, we interact more with our residents.”
Coun. Michael Ford, who voted Ainslie’s motion, said he supported a more modest staff and budget increase.
“I have been getting double the calls, my staff have been staying on top of that, I have been staying on top of that. I don’t see the reason to be drastically increasing budgets,” he said.
“It comes down to accountability … I know my constituents sent me here to watch budgets very closely, and I think this discussion is pushing not in that direction.”
Coun. Cynthia Lai, who was elected for the first time in October, said she voted to increase the maximum while she figures out what level of staffing she needs.
“I don’t have a baseline. I haven’t done it before, so I don’t know whether it’s going to help me or not,” she said.
“It’s up to you whether you want to save money. My goal is to actually save money as much as I can, but there are some things you really can’t save and we need to spend the money … serving my constituents is my number one priority.”
Council passed a staff report containing several recommendations that slash the number of committees and appointments.
“Without changes to the governance structure, council members would … experience difficulty attending all required meetings, potentially causing quorum issues (the required number of representatives for a meeting to proceed) and impairing the ability of committees and boards to function effectively.”
Staff said governing “would be challenged to remain effective and sustainable” if changes weren’t made.
Before Wednesday, there were 97 positions that needed to be filled on 14 council committees, as well as 170 positions on city and external boards for council members.
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With the passage of the report, the number of council committees was cut to nine. The number of council appointments to many boards, including positions overseeing Toronto Community Housing, TTC, Toronto Public Library and the Toronto Zoo, was also reduced.
A special governance committee was created to re-evaluate the interim recommended structure and address any other related issues.
On Dec. 13, council will meet again to vote on appointing members to agencies, boards and committees.
During Tuesday’s meeting, council members took their declarations of office and elected a speaker and a deputy speaker to preside over meetings.