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opinion

Toronto’s municipal election campaign has been disappointing in many ways. Elections are most compelling when they feature a big issue or a close race for the top spot. Neither has emerged in this contest.

Jennifer Keesmaat looked like a real threat to Mayor John Tory when she threw her hat in the ring this summer. Smart, well-spoken and engaging, the former chief planner put herself forward as a can-do alternative to the often uninspiring mayor. But her campaign never took off.

It was overshadowed in the early going by the fight over Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to slash the size of Toronto city council. It was damaged by Ms. Keesmaat’s unrealistic promises (100,000 units of affordable housing) and overdone attacks on Mr. Tory’s record (even the rise in gun violence was his fault). Although anything could happen on election night, she was trailing badly in the polls as the campaign wound down and many voters had written her off.

Both Ms. Keesmaat and Mr. Tory struggled to find a defining issue. She was onto something when she talked about how Toronto is becoming unaffordable. Everyone feels it, from the office cleaner who can’t make her rent to the downtown lawyer who worries if his children will ever be able to afford a house. But she failed to make it her signature, diluting the message with a blizzard of other pledges on everything from transit building to the future of city-owned golf courses.

Mr. Tory defended his record of steady leadership. He would push ahead with his plans for better housing and transit, safer roads and safer neighbourhoods. But it was only in the late stages that he landed on a priority – bridging the city’s divides – and even then he seemed to be grabbing at straws.

What, then, are voters to do? Many will be tempted just to stay home. It would be a shame if they did. City elections matter. City governments are in charge of everything from policing to public housing to road repairs. The services they deliver affect everyone’s daily lives.

Leadership matters, too. Even if the campaign was lacklustre, genuine differences emerged between Ms. Keesmaat and Mr. Tory. He would push ahead with his expensive SmartTrack transit project. She calls SmartTrack a mirage. He would rebuild the eastern end of the Gardiner Expressway, the crumbling elevated highway along the waterfront. She would replace it with a ground-level boulevard.

If the mayoral race leaves voters flat, they can always focus on choosing a city councillor. At the ward level, there are some real horse races under way. Mr. Ford’s move to cut the number of councillors almost in half, to 25, means that several sitting councillors are fighting to keep their seats. In many cases, they are up against other sitting councillors. The overwhelming advantage that incumbency usually confers has faded this time.

In Toronto-St. Paul’s, voters can decide the outcome of a tight contest between frequent Tory critic Josh Matlow and left-leaning veteran Joe Mihevc.

In Etobicoke North, the premier’s nephew, Michael Ford, is up against Ford ally Vincent Crisanti. In Toronto Centre, incumbent Kristyn Wong-Tam faces a former mayoral candidate and Ontario deputy premier, George Smitherman.

What happens in races such as these will determine the shape and tenor of city council for the next four years. Will council’s traditionally strong left wing hold or lose ground? In the wards, if not the city at large, this is the most interesting and consequential election in years.

Voters who care about their city have no excuse to stay away. Polling stations are open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Monday.

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