Ontario’s highest court says that the provincial government was within its rights to cut the size of Toronto city council in the midst of an election campaign. According to the Ontario Court of Appeal, last summer’s decision by the Doug Ford government was, strictly speaking, legal.
As the court notes in its ruling, issued on Thursday, city council is “a creature of provincial legislation.” City councils were not recognized in the Constitution Act of 1867, so they have no constitutional stature. Provincial legislatures can change their powers and composition whenever they please.
That doesn’t mean they should. By democratic norms, if not the constitutional rules, they have a responsibility to treat the cities under their tutelage with respect.
Cities are a lot more important than they were in 1867. Today’s Canada is a highly urban nation. Toronto city council presides over more people than many provincial governments.
The government announced its move to slash city council on July 27, 2018, the same day that nominations for the Oct. 22 election closed. Nominations had opened on May 1, so the campaign was already well under way. In all, 509 candidates had registered to run across 47 wards. Those candidates learned that the number of wards was going down to 25. The wards they hoped to represent were disappearing.
As a dissenting opinion in the 3-2 appeal-court ruling puts it, “Candidates could no longer run in the wards where they had already spent considerable time, money and energy campaigning, which demoralized many and caused at least some to drop out of the race entirely." The sudden change “caused widespread confusion and uncertainty. It deflected attention away from important civic issues, triggered a flurry of foreseeable legal challenges and jeopardized the viability of administering the election on schedule.”
The dissent continues: “By extinguishing almost half of the city's existing wards midway through an active election, Ontario blew up the efforts, aspirations and campaign materials of hundreds of aspiring candidates, and the reciprocal engagement of many informed voters.”
And what was the point of it all? Mr. Ford argued that he just wanted to save money and make city council more efficient. Paying 25 councillors instead of 47 would cut around $25-million from the city’s expenses. But bigger wards means more work for those 25 councillors and more staff to help them do it. Council had to increase councillors’ office budgets, cutting into the savings − modest to begin with in a city budget of $13-billion.
As for efficiency, a visit to the council chambers on meeting days argues against the hopeful notion that 25 councillors would quarrel less and get more done than 47. Many of the same faces are having the same arguments.
The dissenting opinion in the appeal-court judgment notes that, under an agreement between the province and the city, Ontario is supposed to consult Toronto on “any proposed change in legislation or regulation that, in Ontario’s opinion, will have a significant financial or policy impact on the city.”
Mr. Ford didn’t do that. He and his brother Rob had been thwarted in an earlier attempt, when Rob Ford was mayor, to cut city council down to size. He was determined to get his way, even if it meant turning the Toronto election campaign upside down. His bombshell announcement caught the city by surprise.
That is one of the reasons Mayor John Tory and city council have been contesting the council cut, even though it is now a fait accompli. They hope to take it right to the Supreme Court.
An important principle is at stake. Even if cities are constitutional vassals of the provinces, they have rights. Provinces should not run roughshod over them, as Mr. Ford certainly did this past summer. The court’s dissenters call the way he changed the rules in the middle of the game “seemingly without precedent in Canadian history.”
What he did was both undemocratic and unnecessary. Toronto should keep fighting back.