Mayor John Tory said he made it known he was in favour of the provincial government’s decision to grant Toronto’s next leader “strong mayor powers,” but he was forced to defend his lobbying efforts to strengthen them further, in a move that has many decrying an erosion of municipal democracy.
On Wednesday, Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs revealed Tory had requested further strength to the strong mayor powers. Previously, the mayor would have been able to veto council decisions, but now Tory will be able to pass motions with only a third of council support, as long as the issue is deemed of “provincial interest.”
Tory said his discussions with the province on the subject were held before Toronto’s municipal election and the expanded powers are necessary because he would have been unable to proactively bring forward provincial priorities without it.
“These enhanced authorities only apply to areas designated as being areas of provincial priority,” he said, “including housing and also maybe transportation or transit.”
Tory said there was no clarity on what the expanded rules would be until the legislation was tabled this week and said he has built trust with residents over his previous eight years and should continue to be trusted.
But critics were quick to note that he made no mention of the expanded provisions while campaigning and the new powers negatively impact municipal democracy.
Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus at Toronto Metropolitan University, said the powers are completely unprecedented and not only don’t exist within North America, but any democratic body in the world.
“It’s an undermining of the whole purpose and role of municipal government,” he said. “This is turning the mayor into the chief provincial enforcement officer at city hall.”
“It’s really regrettable that Mayor Tory be complicit in this and this will hang over him as one of his legacies for the city of Toronto,” said Siemiatycki, adding that if the purpose is to build more housing, the means don’t justify the ends.
“That a mayor would want to have the ability to override the majority is such a flagrant overturning of the most basic of democratic principles. I just think it’s close to unbelievable that Mayor Tory would seek such powers or would exercise these on any issue.”
The move is also being criticized by veteran city councillor and noted Tory critic Josh Matlow, who said Tory has had been virtually unimpeded on every council motion he has put forward. When asked earlier by Global News to point to areas he was obstructed over his previous terms, the mayor said it was less of an issue of being blocked in a vote, but knowing he didn’t have the votes to push an issue forward.
Matlow counters that a mayor doesn’t need these powers, because the province already has the authority to do what it wants. “We’re in a housing crisis and Doug Ford has the power to re-zone, change the planning act, do whatever he wants to build more housing, you don’t need a strong mayor power to do so,” he said.
“That is gaslighting, it’s a red herring, and shamelessly it’s the end of local democracy as we know it here in Toronto,” Matlow said.
The change also caught new city councillor Jamaal Myers off-guard, who described the affair as disappointing.
“This is the first instance I can recall of the mayor actually going to the province of Ontario to undermine the democratic legitimacy of Toronto’s government,” said Myers. As a Torontonian, he said he expects Tory to stand up for the city’s principles, not to be opposed to them.
“This place only operates on trust and good relationships and that’s set at the top.”
Myers said he’s not holding out much hope the province will backtrack on the new powers, but thinks that responsibility should be up to Tory. “What I’m more interested to see is if the mayor will backtrack on this, I think that’s really important,” he said.