There he goes again. For the second straight time, Ontario Premier Doug Ford is springing a surprise makeover on Toronto’s municipal government, one that will come into effect in the middle of the city’s ongoing election campaign.
Mr. Ford confirmed on Wednesday that, before the municipal elections in October, his government intends to give the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa the power to veto city council decisions.
He said council would be able to overturn a mayoral veto with a two-thirds vote, but gave few other details about a plan that he’s never mentioned before, said not a peep about during the provincial election, and which prior to this week’s minimalist announcement hadn’t even been discussed by cabinet.
It’s a strikingly similar move to the one Mr. Ford pulled in 2018 when, with a municipal election in full swing, at the stroke of a pen he reduced the number of seats on Toronto’s council from 44 to 25.
It was, as this page wrote at the time, a petty act of political revenge against a city council that had clashed with his late brother, former mayor Rob Ford.
It was also, however, a perfectly legal move, as the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed in a 2021 ruling that upheld Queen’s Park’s ability to change Toronto’s ward boundaries, or anything else, on a whim. As the court said, the Constitution gives provinces the “absolute and unfettered legal power to legislate with respect to municipalities.”
At this point, it is too early to say whether this plan to give the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa so-called “strong mayor” powers is a good idea. Other than the veto, Mr. Ford hasn’t revealed what the move will entail.
Will it include the power to hire and fire city officials unilaterally, as in American cities with a strong-mayor system? Will the mayor have control over the preparation of budgets, with council left only to approve or reject, under threat of veto?
The strong mayor system is used in many cities around the world. It is not in and of itself a good or bad thing. Much depends on other factors – including who is elected to the job.
One thing is certain in Toronto’s case, however: It will not solve the many big and small problems of Canada’s largest city, from a housing crunch to waterless water fountains. Not as long as Toronto remains the personal Lego set of the premier of Ontario.
That Toronto can’t get much done is due less to the fact the mayor is not a supreme executive leader, than to the fact its ability to control its fate is perpetually handcuffed by the province.
When in 2016 the current mayor, John Tory, wanted to impose tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway – provincial highways whose hefty costs were downloaded onto the city by the province – the premier of the day said no.
The province has a long history of transferring obligations to the city, while withholding money and power.
The only major source of income the city is allowed to control is property taxes. They account for 31 per cent of its 2022 budget. The next biggest source is transfers from the province and Ottawa, at 27 per cent. Then come utility and parking fees, at 13 per cent. The rest of the city’s income is made up of transit fares, user fees, fines and two hidden taxes on property – development charges and land transfer taxes.
It means that the only substantial revenue tool Toronto has is property taxes. And though they are comparatively low, council is always loathe to raise them, for fear of voter backlash. How would having a strong mayor make a difference? It wouldn’t.
Meanwhile, other North American cities with strong mayor systems have far more fiscal freedom. New York City, for instance, has an income tax and a sales tax. In its 2022 budget, revenue from “other taxes” is higher than the revenue from property taxes.
In the end, it’s hard to see what would change in Toronto under a strong mayor system. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but the real thing keeping the city on hold is provincial obstruction, not council obstruction. What’s the point of having a Toronto mayor with strong executive powers, if the mayor’s decisions are still subject to the whims of the far more powerful office of the Premier of Ontario?
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