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The council chamber at Toronto City Hall is a quiet place – when it’s empty. Council voted this week to add three more seats to address the city’s population growth. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The council chamber at Toronto City Hall is a quiet place – when it’s empty. Council voted this week to add three more seats to address the city’s population growth. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

How to fix Toronto’s ‘broken’ city council in four not-so-easy steps Add to ...

Despite critics who think Toronto City Council is already too big to manage, local politicians voted this week to add three councillors to its existing 44 to reflect the city’s population growth over the past decade.

A slightly bigger herd of cats, some worry, will only make matters worse.

Budget chief Gary Crawford called the city’s governance structure “broken.” Even after the Ford era, council is routinely described as dysfunctional, with its marathon meetings and the colourful antics of some of its members.

Others say Toronto council looks so messy only because so much of its business is done in the open, and not behind closed doors.

A new effort is under way to try to smooth some of council’s rough edges. Gabriel Eidelman, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, has convened an informal task force made up of former city managers Shirley Hoy and Joe Pennachetti, former city councillors David Soknacki and John Parker, open-data advocate Bianca Wylie, former city hall staffers and other external experts.

The goal is to come up with reforms that council could bring in on its own, without changes to provincial legislation.

Prof. Eidelman says the initiative was born after students he sent to observe city council returned to class to describe it as “crazy” and “like grade school.” The task force meets, in public, at U of T next week, the first of three meetings before it is to come up with a final report in April. Here are a few ideas on the table:

Don’t sweat the small stuff

City council found time this week, amid debates over billions in spending on transit projects, to battle over the fate of one single tree in North York.

A decade ago, council approved reforms aimed at delegating some purely local decisions – such as speed humps or stop signs on side streets – to “community councils.” (These committees are made up of local councillors and loosely based on the boundaries of Toronto’s pre-amalgamation municipalities.) But many decisions can still be second-guessed at full council, helping to push lengthy meetings long after dark.

“Late at night, we’re waving through multimillion-dollar developments in a few minutes, but we spend hours on a 40-centimetre-diameter tree,” Etobicoke Councillor Stephen Holyday says. “There has to be a better way.”

What are councillors for?

Mr. Parker, who also served as a Progressive Conservative MPP under premier Mike Harris in the 1990s, says it’s time to reconsider the very role of a city councillor. Are they primarily ward heelers, who must champion every constituent’s complaint about untrimmed shrubbery and the like? Or are they policy-makers for an entity bigger than most provinces, with a $10-billion operating budget?

“We have to decide whether members of council are legislators or ombudsmen,” Mr. Parker says, arguing that MPPs do not interfere with provincial civil servants the way councillors routinely stick their fingers into city staff matters. “You would not go to somebody in some [provincial] department and tell them to fix your pothole.”

Hurry up

Part of council’s problem is a set of procedural rules better suited to smaller municipalities. For example, Toronto’s council, which must decide on hundreds of matters each month ranging from 80-storey development applications to bars asking for patio liquor licences, spends a half-hour or more each morning going through the agenda. Councillors, flipping through printed pages, are asked which items they wish to hold for debate.

Prof. Eidelman says there must be a way to do more of this in advance. Other tinkering could include a crackdown on similar time wasters: Members’ walk-on motions could be restricted to truly urgent matters. And questions of senior city officials – such as the chief planner, department heads, the fire chief – could be better policed so that councillors do not ask purely rhetorical questions, or for answers contained in reports they should have already read.

Super-councillors

As council voted to add three wards this week, it cast aside motions to elect just 26 councillors instead. And it also swatted away an idea from Mr. Holyday that would have paired a 26-member council with a powerful 12-member board of control, with controllers elected at large (‎three from each of the city's four districts)‎ and responsible, along with the mayor, for all big citywide decisions, including the financial ones. The idea would certainly solve the oversized council problem. But it could create new ones.

Toronto abandoned such a system in 1969, while the other pre-amalgamation cities hung onto their boards of control for much longer. Critics called them undemocratic for centralizing power. Their revival is highly unlikely.

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