Some contenders in Toronto’s mayoral by-election say they wouldn’t hesitate to use sweeping new powers granted by the province, including the ability to pass some bylaws with only one-third support, override decisions of council and fire and replace top city officials.
Candidates in the June 26 by-election are split on using “strong-mayor” powers given to the heads of council of Toronto and Ottawa by Premier Doug Ford’s government last year. These include the authority to veto budget amendments passed by council as well as bylaws that interfere with “provincial priorities” focused on housing and related infrastructure. Council could in turn reverse the veto with two-thirds support.
The mayors can also introduce and pass bylaws with only one-third support related to provincial priorities, a power that was requested by former Toronto mayor John Tory. Mr. Tory never used the veto or minority vote tools before resigning from office in February after acknowledging an affair with a staff member.
Other powers granted to mayors through the provincial legislation include the ability to make sole decisions on hiring and firing top city officials, preparing the city’s annual budget and creating committees of council.
The province announced plans last week to extend the expanded powers to 26 other municipalities as of July 1.
The strong-mayor powers have been met with criticism by many municipal councillors and advocacy groups who charge that they undermine the roles and voices of other elected members of council and put too much authority into the hands of one person.
But the changes are supported by high-profile candidates Mark Saunders and Brad Bradford, who say they would use the ability to block or push through policies with a minority of council, arguing they are extra tools for the mayor to advance their priorities and quickly tackle issues facing the city. Mr. Saunders, a former Toronto police chief, pointed to budget cuts to police, paramedics or fire services as examples of decisions he would override with a veto.
“I will never allow council to jeopardize public safety and I will override any political tactics to defund budgets of paramedic, fire or police services. Public safety must be paramount,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Saunders said he wouldn’t make immediate changes to the city’s staffing structure, but “will not hesitate” to use the powers if he finds managers underperforming.
Mr. Bradford, a current city councillor, said he would use the powers. He also said he would issue mandate letters for department heads with expectations on performance, and dismiss staff where they’re not met.
Councillor Josh Matlow has pledged not to use the minority-vote or veto powers, but said he would like to see “some” immediate changes in the ranks of the city’s top civil servants. He didn’t point to any specific departments but said he takes issue with officials who don’t bring forward innovative ideas to council. Mr. Matlow said he wants to empower staff to come forward with “extraordinary ideas” that other cities would look to and want to follow.
“There are some senior staff who I think have the potential of doing that, and those who aren’t, they’ll have to be replaced,” he said. “I want to surround myself with people who will speak truth to power, who won’t just tell me in council what we want to hear but what we need to hear to improve city services and provide a great quality of life to Torontonians.”
The four-term councillor has had a rocky relationship with some city staff in his time on council and was found in violation of the code of conduct earlier this year for posting tweets on social media that were disrespectful to specific employees. Council voted to suspend his pay for 10 days as a consequence.
Previously, staffing decisions for the city manager and deputy city managers were voted on by council and the city manager was delegated the authority to hire and fire for other positions. Mr. Tory appointed Toronto’s new city manager Paul Johnson and two deputy city managers last year under the expanded mayoral powers. Since his resignation, the powers reverted to council who voted just this week to hire two deputy city managers.
Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus of politics at Toronto Metropolitan University, called the sole authority to hire and fire problematic because it could “stack the deck” and influence city staff to only focus on policies supported by the mayor and not take into account the other 25 voices on council.
“Understandably, and I think inevitably, people who get selected by the mayor will come to believe – in order to hold on to the position – they need to satisfy the mayor,” he said.
Former NDP MP and Toronto city councillor Olivia Chow, who has been polling as the race’s front-runner, has spoken out in opposition to the powers and said she would never use the minority vote or veto council decisions, arguing a “top-down” decision-making model won’t work. Ms. Chow said she would introduce a budget, but not before consulting with councillors, city staff and community groups.
Former Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter has also pledged she would not to use either the minority vote or veto powers. Former councillor Ana Bailão has spoken out against the minority vote but hasn’t ruled out using the veto. She said she supports the powers to hire and fire and introduce the budget, but would consult with councillors first.