Ontario Premier Doug Ford has confirmed he plans to introduce sweeping reforms of the powers granted to Toronto and Ottawa’s mayors.
In a scrum outside Queen’s Park, Ford said the two mayors would be granted veto power over council decisions, significantly increasing the legislative power they hold.
“They’re accountable for everything but they have the same single vote as a single councillor,” Ford said. “No matter if it’s a good decision or a tough decision that they make, they have to be accountable.”
Ford said he would “get into the details” later but confirmed the mayors would get a veto that could only be overturned by a two-thirds majority of council.
The powers would leave Toronto and Ottawa with “strong mayors.”
Dr. Kate Graham, a former Liberal candidate who completed her PhD in the role and power of mayors in Canada, said the terminology comes from the United States.
“In a strong mayor system, executive power is concentrated with the mayor,” she explained to Global News.
“So that means the mayor can do things like hire and fire staff, they can veto council decisions, they approve the budgets on their own. They have a lot of power over the executive function of a municipality.”
Jeff Burch, the Ontario NDP’s Municipal Affairs Critic, said the move was “baffling.”
“Why did Premier Doug Ford keep his Strong Mayor plan secret throughout the campaign? Why won’t he consult municipalities or the people they represent?” he said in a statement.
“It’s baffling that Ford is focused on giving two mayors more power, instead of working on giving municipalities support that would actually help people — like better funding for housing, public health, long-term care and transit.”
Ford was a former Toronto city councillor and failed mayoral candidate. His brother, Rob, was Toronto mayor from 2010 to 2014.
Some elements of the planned legislation remain unclear.
Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark told reporters it would ensure mayors “have the tools that they need to get shovels in the ground” and to build new housing.
“The premier and me are both of the same mind,” he said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory made a similar comment to reporters at city hall on Wednesday morning.
“I had a meeting with (Ford) not too long ago and in that meeting there was a passing reference to (the fact) we’ve got to find ways to get more housing built faster,” Tory said.
“And, in passing, it was mentioned you have to be able to show and exercise leadership in doing that.”
Ford, however, said he “didn’t remember regarding affordable housing,” when asked about the issue outside Queen’s Park.
Tory signaled his support for a “strong mayor” system.
“I understand this is something that the province is exploring in order to get more homes built as quickly as possible,” he wrote in a statement.
“As mayor, I am absolutely determined to get more housing built — no matter what powers I have as mayor.”
Gil Penalosa, a well-known urbanist and one of the candidates running against Tory in October, said he did not support the new powers.
“I commit that as Mayor I will use the power of ideas, rather than the power of a veto, to inspire Torontonians and Councillors to deliver a more affordable, equitable, and sustainable city with housing, beautiful parks, and safer streets that work for everyone,” he said in a statement.
On Wednesday morning, a request by Toronto Coun. Josh Matlow to debate the move passed by 18 votes to three, with Mike Colle, Stephen Holyday and James Pasternak voting against it.
Tory voted in favour of the debate.
Matlow has prepared a motion with three recommendations. The motion, if passed, would see Toronto oppose the introduction of a “strong mayor” system and a mayoral veto.
“Such a move would erode democracy by stifling local advocacy on the most important issues affecting Torontonians,” Matlow’s motion read.
The scheduled debate at council, where Tory is currently just one vote out of 25, could see the city take a position on the legislation before Ford even tables it.
Coun. Mike Layton said the issue was not about Tory, about political leaning, or about efficiency.
“It’s about what could happen if this power fell into the wrong hands, regardless of your political stripe,” he tweeted Wednesday.
Outgoing deputy mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong said he was in favour of the powers.
“The public sees the mayor (as) responsible for a lot of things that go on: policy decisions, financial decisions,” he said. “So he should be given those powers, I think it’s entirely appropriate.”
Coun. Gord Perks took the opposite view.
“I cannot imagine why any elected official would think they can change the way Toronto is governed without talking to Torontonians,” he said.
City councils in Ontario have a tradition of issue-by-issue coalition building, said Western University associate professor Zach Taylor, who specializes in urban politics and local government. Mayors can appoint committee chairs, but otherwise they have one vote along with the rest of council.
“If you don’t have to use soft power to build coalitions because you can just wave magic wands, you’re not going to put effort into building those coalitions. I think that’s the main argument against,” Taylor said.
On the other hand, Taylor said, it’s possible a “strong mayor” system could lead to quicker decision-making.
It’s unclear, however, how such a system would help to significantly ease the housing crisis, given the power the province wields in planning decisions, Taylor said.
The changes will be “immediate” Ford said, likely coming into force before the municipal election on October 24.
Tory is running for a third term as mayor in Toronto, while Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has said he will not seek re-election.
A spokesperson for Watson said the mayor was on annual leave and would not be able to comment Wednesday.
The potential upheaval at Toronto and Ottawa city hall mirrors a controversial move Ford made in 2018, when he cut the size of Toronto city council in half before the last round of local elections.
In 2018, the municipal campaign was well underway when the Ontario legislature passed a law that reduced the number of council seats in Toronto to 25 from 47, aligning them with federal ridings.
Ford argued at the time that the change would streamline council operations and save $25 million.
The legislation is not expected to apply to other major cities in Ontario when it is introduced during a rare summer sitting, set to begin on Aug. 8.
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie told Global News she had “long been a proponent of broader municipal reform.”
“I’ve spoken to the Premier and asked that big cities like Mississauga be a part of this conversation moving forward,” she said.
“I also encourage the province to consult municipal leaders on broad scale reform and look forward to Mississauga being at the table for those discussions.”
A spokesperson for Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said he “welcomes the discussion” around increasing mayoral power.
“He hopes that if Toronto and Ottawa receive new powers that other large municipalities would be considered in the future,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
— with files from The Canadian Press