A group of former Toronto mayors are urging the next city council to settle the rules of engagement around the “strong mayor” system as the first order of business after the municipal elections.
Former mayors say that even though Premier Doug Ford’s government introduced and quickly passed legislation establishing the sweeping powers this summer, the council can still influence how and when they are used.
Art Eggleton, John Sewell, David Crombie, Barbara Hall and David Miller made the call at a forum hosted by the University of Toronto’s School of Cities in partnership with CBC News this week. The event was organized to shed light on the new powers granted to the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa.
The mayors met earlier this summer to call on the province to drop plans to introduce the powers, which allow the mayors of the province’s two largest cities to prepare and approve the budget, give them more control over appointments to committees and agencies and the ability to hire and fire city staff.
The powers also give mayors new authority to override certain council decisions that don’t align with Ontario government priorities, with the province saying it created the bill to help build more housing.
“No Toronto mayor worth his salt would accept or defend the powers the province just gave him, especially in the way it happened,” said David Miller, who served as mayor of Toronto from 2003 to 2010, during the event.
“I think the powers that be are wrong. They are likely to produce very negative results for local democracy. And they happened in a really malicious way that is completely undemocratic.”
Powers will help build more homes, Ford government says
Ontario Premier Doug Ford introduced the powers this summer just weeks after winning a second majority government.
But the former mayors do not think that the last word has been pronounced on the exercise of powers, even if the law has been passed.
In fact, agreeing on the rules of engagement surrounding how powers are used is well within the rights of the next mayor and council, says David Crombie, who served as mayor of Toronto from 1972 to 1978. apart from the bill’s requirement that the mayor present a budget according to a set timetable, most other powers are “permissive,” he says.
“He says the mayor ‘can’ and not ‘must’,” he said.
“So that means when the election is over and the council meets for its first meeting, what it should do is set the agenda… and it should deal with this legislation.”
Crombie says this will give city council and Toronto residents the opportunity to have a truly informed debate.
“I am totally against the legislation, but there are good people who have other views,” he said.
“We need a public debate; they change the fundamental principles on which our local democracy is based in Toronto.”
‘We still have a chance’ of debate: Crombie
The Ontario government held several days of hearings at Queen’s Park this summer, but Crombie and the other former mayors say the legislation was not debated or consulted properly, given that it is a fundamental change in the functioning of local government.
“Right now we’ve had a silent mayor, and we’ve had a provincial government that made a law that’s going to change things and there’s been no public debate,” Crombie said.
“It’s a shame. So I say the future is ahead of us, we still have a chance.”
And while the new powers can be used immediately by the newly elected mayor, the two leading candidates in the Toronto mayoral race say they are ready to have a council debate.
“I’m very happy to have a discussion with my colleagues if we all get elected about this,” John Tory said.
“But at the end of the day, it’s a provincial law that applies to Ottawa and Toronto. I would expect me to continue to exercise my work as mayor, if I am given this privilege in the same way that I had before, who does the best he can a consensus with the council to move forward together on the great things we have to do.”
‘Lack of vision’ is the problem, says Penalosa
Gil Penalosa, Tory’s main challenger, says he would have the debate as his first order of business if elected mayor, but says he generally opposes powers.
“The powers of the mayor are not lacking,” he said. “There is a lack of vision and action. The reality is that John Tory has won every motion on any subject that is important to him, every one.”
At the forum, mayors were asked what residents could do to voice their concerns about powers, especially young people. John Sewell, who served as mayor of Toronto from 1978 to 1980, urged them to take action and pressure the new mayor and council to resist the strong mayoral system.
“You have to start screaming and screaming, saying ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that, Mr. Mayor. “”