Before Ontario Premier Doug Ford enacts his plan to cut Toronto’s city council almost in half before its fall election, the city’s municipal government is instructing its lawyers to look into a legal challenge.
More than a dozen councillors have lined up behind Mr. Ford’s move, first announced last week, arguing it will make city council more efficient.
But they were outvoted by those calling for the city’s lawyers to report back at an emergency council meeting on Aug. 20 on whether the sudden slashing of local politicians violates the constitutional rights of Toronto voters. The council’s motion asks the city solicitor to “consider the validity and constitutionality” of the province’s move and to look into “its potential violation of the rights of the citizens of Toronto to fair and effective representation,” and then advise council of its legal options.
“It was a clear signal today by the City of Toronto that this fly-by-night attack on our residents, on our local democracy and on this institution will not stand,” said Joe Cressy, who was among the left-leaning downtown councillors who pushed for the city to challenge the move in court. "... The fight to stop this is one we have agreed as a council to take up.”
After their daylong debate at City Hall, a majority of councillors also approved Toronto Mayor John Tory’s call to ask the province to allow a referendum on the issue, although some on council say they doubt that will happen.
Mr. Tory said in a statement after the vote that Mr. Ford should hit the “pause button” and ensure Torontonians are consulted before making such a major change: “I have said clearly that you don't change the rules in the middle of an election. That's why I believe the municipal election should proceed as is.”
It’s unclear just what the city’s chances are in court if it does decide to launch a challenge of Mr. Ford’s move, which was announced on Friday, almost three months after local candidates started filing nomination papers, raising money and knocking on doors.
The surprise move, never mentioned during the provincial election campaign, has upended Toronto politics and was followed by a last-minute decision by former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat to jump into the mayor’s race.
The issue also sparked confrontation at the legislature on Monday, where after a heated Question Period, Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservative government introduced legislative amendments that would reduce the number of wards contested in Toronto’s Oct. 22 election to 25 from 47. The new boundaries would mirror those for MPPs. Under the proposed changes, candidates already signed up would have to notify the city clerk of their intention to run in one of the new, larger wards by Sept. 14.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Mr. Ford was acting like a “dictator,” and that the move, which is being restricted to Toronto’s council and not being extended to other large cities such as Ottawa or Hamilton, was a form of political vandalism on the province’s largest city.
“It appears that Mr. Ford is settling some political scores,” Ms. Horwath said. “It seems to me that he couldn’t get elected as mayor of Toronto and now he wants to be the de facto mayor of Toronto in his corner office here at Queen’s Park.”
Mr. Ford told the legislature his move to reduce the size of Toronto’s council would make the municipal government more efficient and save money: “Nothing gets done at city hall. There’s gridlock in our streets, gridlock at city hall.”
Mr. Ford’s government is also cancelling planned elections for regional chairs in Muskoka and Niagara as well as in suburban York Region, where former Liberal cabinet minister Steven Del Duca was running, and in Peel Region, where deposed PC leader Patrick Brown had been preparing to run.
Some of Mr. Tory’s critics on council have called his initial response to Mr. Ford’s plan tepid, and even suggested he failed to act when given a heads-up by the Premier. Mr. Tory denies that he was given any advance warning, although he acknowledges that Mr. Ford mentioned the idea in an “offhand way” during their recent meeting after Mr. Ford became premier. But the Mayor says he told Mr. Ford it was not possible this close to the municipal election, and the subject was dropped.
Toronto has just undergone a four-year process and voted to increase the number of councillors from 44 to 47, in an attempt to avoid a large a difference in population size between wards. Several councillors cast doubt on Mr. Ford’s assertion that slashing the number to 25 will save $25-million over four years, arguing that councillors’ offices will have to increase staff to deal with the increased workload, particularly in busy downtown wards with many large development projects.
Several on council’s left have asserted that Mr. Ford’s real goal is revenge on the councillors with whom he clashed during his late brother Rob’s troubled term as mayor. At a press conference with six other councillors who support the plan, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, a Ford ally, said the likely reduction of left-leaning councillors from Toronto’s downtown was one of its benefits: “There’s going to be less left-leaning politicians in the City of Toronto. That means it’s a great thing.”