There’s no denying it: Giving Toronto a “strong-mayor” system has a certain appeal. Many voters look on city council as a dysfunctional talking shop, simply incapable of getting things done. Councillors joust and quarrel and politic while the traffic gets worse, the water fountains stay busted and the housing crisis deepens.
Under the current system, strong-mayor proponents note, mayors hold just one vote of 26 on council, so they have to waste a lot of effort rounding up the votes to get their agenda through. Why not just give them more power, allowing them to truly run the place? It seems to work in many U.S. cities. Why not here?
Well, there are a few reasons. One can be expressed in just two words: Rob Ford. Imagine how much worse his chaotic mayoralty might have been if he had been armed with extra authority. Toronto survived that wild period in part because, as it stands, city council, not the mayor, is supreme.
Councillors stepped in to curb the defiant Mr. Ford, stripping him of many of his powers. Rob Fords don’t come along very often, but a democratic system needs to guard against worst cases. Concentrating more power in the office of the mayor heightens the risk that someone will abuse that office in future. The suggestion from Ontario’s Premier – and Rob Ford’s brother – Doug Ford that council might be able to overrule the mayor with a two-thirds vote draws the sting a little, but let’s wait until we see the details.
City council can be an awful mess, for sure. But so can the provincial and federal legislatures. Although it can be an unedifying spectacle, it works in its fashion. Mayors can’t just ram their plans through. They need to present them to council, mount an argument and persuade a majority of councillors to go along. Isn’t that sort of how democracy is supposed to work – through argument and persuasion?
The alternative is to make the mayor the kind of elected autocrat we see on Parliament Hill or at Queen’s Park, where prime ministers or premiers with a majority in the legislature can do pretty much as they please between elections, no matter how much the opposition benches may bray. In that system, at least as it has come to operate in Canada, legislators almost invariably toe the party line, voting with the team no matter what their personal beliefs on the matter at hand.
In Toronto and other Ontario municipalities, where parties aren’t allowed, councillors are far more independent and vocal. That can be an awful pain for a mayor, who has to put up with their questions, criticisms and taunts. But most Toronto mayors get their way more often than not.
From Mel Lastman to David Miller to the current mayor, John Tory, they have managed to get most of their priorities through without strong-mayor powers. The mandate they enjoy through being directly elected by voters citywide – rather than in a particular ward – gives them a certain moral authority, and councillors generally acknowledge it in the end. No other elected office-holder in the country gets as many marks beside his or her name on the ballot: nearly half a million in Mr. Tory’s case in the last contest.
So mayors are far from the impotent figureheads that strong-mayor backers suggest. Most manage to build a working majority on council one way or another. To bring councillors on side, they deal out appointments to key council committees and boards. A quiet understanding develops: Support me, and I’ll make you budget chair. Oppose me and someone else might get the job.
Mr. Ford has a habit of meddling in Toronto politics. A former councillor (and then mayoral candidate) himself, he was at his brother’s side during those troubled times and thinks he knows what needs fixing. Just as soon as he took office provincially for the first time, he pulled a fast one and slashed the size of city council in half in the midst of an election campaign – a profoundly undemocratic and fundamentally unnecessary act.
Now he is at it again. A move to a strong mayor system is equally unnecessary and more risky. Torontonians who like the sound of the idea might want to curb their enthusiasm.
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