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marcus gee

File photo of Toronto city hall on May 23 2012.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

City councillors suffer from an acute inferiority complex. Though they govern a metropolis of 2 1/2 million souls, they get no respect. Theirs is a junior level of government, a little brother to the feds and province, and many voters write them off as little more than pothole fillers.

To compensate, they sometimes attempt to do something grand, like save the planet, and end up wildly overreaching themselves. So it was with last week's surprise vote to ban the sale of plastic bags by Toronto retailers.

Councillors had no proof before them that the ban would do much to improve the urban environment, much less the eco-sphere. The bags are already part of the recycling stream and take up minimal space in landfills.

It is not even clear councillors have the right to ban the sale of a legal product like ordinary plastic bags. If they can, where does it end? Can city council ban the sale of cigarettes to keep our lungs clean, of foreign cars to support the local auto industry, of California asparagus to help Ontario farmers?

Councillors forged ahead regardless, supported by little more than a self-satisfied sense that they were doing "the right thing." It is far from the first time.

In 2004, they voted to restrict the use of lawn-care chemicals that the relevant experts in the federal government had cleared as safe. Result: weedy grass in parks and boulevards.

Last fall, they voted to prohibit the sale, possession and consumption of shark fins within municipal boundaries. City staff pointed out that marine conservation is the realm of the federal government, not city hall, and warned them the city could face lawsuits from restaurant owners. They went right ahead anyway.

At around the same time, an animal-loving councillor persuaded her colleagues to send three aging elephants at the Toronto Zoo to a private sanctuary in California. Again, the experts warned them to be careful. The zoo's management board recommended looking for a home for the elephants at an accredited zoo first. Again, councillors ignored the advice.

Months of controversy and confusion have followed, with Toronto zookeepers suggesting there may be health problems among animals at the California sanctuary and the sanctuary accusing its critics of conducting a witch hunt. It is a prime example of what happens when a presumptuous council freelances decisions that are far beyond its competence.

If there is one area you might think councillors would avoid, it is international trade. This is clearly Ottawa's responsibility. But that didn't stop Toronto councillors from voting in March to seek an exemption from a pending free trade deal between Canada and the European Union. Left-leaning councillors are concerned that the deal, if it happens, would limit city hall's ability to favour certain local suppliers, even though Ottawa has assured cities they will continue to have the right to use social and environmental factors in procurement decisions.

The question is whether city councillors have the expertise to pass judgment on something as complex as an international trade agreement drafted in dozens of meetings over many years. This seems well above their pay grade.

No one is saying that councillors have to limit themselves to installing speed bumps and deciding who gets a front-yard parking pad. There are plenty of meaty issues for them to sink their teeth into, from making transit work to fixing aged public housing. But if they were more realistic about the limits of their authority and their scope, they would lay off the plastic bags and the elephants.

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