The battle to prevent Ontario Premier Doug Ford from cutting the size of Toronto city council is probably lost. It was probably lost the moment that Mr. Ford announced the plan last month.
The provincial government has wide powers over Ontario municipalities, which are junior partners in the relationship. The law reducing the size of council by nearly half, to 25 members, has cleared the legislature. It is now the law of the land. City officials are redrawing their election plans on the assumption that the vote on Oct. 22 will happen over 25 wards, not 47.
Toronto should keep fighting all the same. Even if the chances of winning are slim, city council was right to vote on Monday to challenge the Ford decision in court.
An important principle is at stake. Toronto’s government may be constitutionally subservient to Queen’s Park, but it is hardly a non-entity. It governs the fourth-largest city in North America. It is bigger than the governments of many provinces. Allowing Mr. Ford to steamroll Toronto’s chief governing body in the way he did would set a bad precedent.
As Councillor John Filion put it, the province may have the legal authority to cut council’s size in half, “but it’s not right.” Toronto’s government should not succumb to bullying. “We should be standing up and fighting back.”
Hear, hear. Mr. Ford’s move against council was sudden, arbitrary and vengeful. He was getting council back for thwarting a similar attempt by his brother Rob when he was mayor. Mr. Ford gave no notice to Toronto. He did not allow for the study, hearings, public meetings and other forms of due process that usually come with such an important change in governance rules. He did not even put the idea on the table during his election run.
He changed the rules in the middle of the game. Toronto’s election was already well under way when Mr. Ford stepped in with his stomping boots. Some candidates had been knocking on doors for weeks. Many had rearranged their lives to run for office. Suddenly, everything was up in the air. The provincial move upended years of work – consultations, challenges, council debates – on reconfiguring the city’s electoral map to take account of population changes, increasing the number of wards to 47 from 44.
As many councillors put it during Monday’s debate, it was not so much the content of the change that was offensive. They would have been willing to discuss the idea of reducing the size of council for the next election in 2022. It was the way it was done. Rushing a bill through the legislature with no real debate just three months before the votes were to be counted was no way to treat Toronto and its elected representatives.
By challenging this law, Councillor Gord Perks said, Toronto has a chance to establish that “municipal governments are real things” and that “municipal voters have real rights.” If it doesn’t stand up for itself now, what more might the provincial government do?
Perhaps the courts will produce a surprise decision and uphold the city’s challenge. A judge might find that the way the law was rammed through was itself illegal. That is one of the reasons we have an independent judiciary, after all: to restrain governments that don’t play by the rules. Referring the matter to the courts, Mayor John Tory said, will allow for a “reasoned second look” at the decision to slash council.
Mr. Ford says that he wants a slimmer, more efficient government for Toronto. But the number of councillors – 25, 35, 45, 55 – doesn’t matter much. What Toronto really needs is a strong government that doesn’t need to run up the road to Queen’s Park all the time – like a little boy in short pants, as Mr. Tory famously put it. Toronto won’t get that if it takes this lying down.