Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes regularly for Report on Business
If Doug Ford and Olivia Chow, as the polls indicate, lose to John Tory in the battle for the Toronto mayoralty, should they be allowed to sit on the next council anyway, as members-at-large?
That's an unusual suggestion, particularly to partisans who think one (or both of them) is a dangerous ninny. But it really corresponds closer to our prevailing model of elections in this country at other levels of government. It would allow better use of the talents of the individuals vying to be chief magistrate. And it would, if applied in municipal elections across the country, encourage more councillors to challenge incumbent mayors, since the penalty for losing would not be a number of years – in Ontario, four – sitting on the sidelines.
Federally and provincially, we have a Parliamentary form of government. After an election, there is a government and a loyal opposition (perhaps even a third or fourth party in opposition); usually the leaders of those parties win seats in the legislature and hold the government to account during the next term. But at the municipal level, we have a presidential form of mayoralty elections – it's winner takes all, and the best the losers can do is run next time.
We don't have formal parties at the municipal level in most cities, but it's common to have their equivalent, informally, at least in voting patterns, with perhaps a right, left, or center. Arguably in Toronto, there is a moderate right party, for which John Tory is the natural challenger in this election. A Reform Party (or Tea Party) exists, which Doug Ford is representing – not a Ford family candidate, as many observers cynically suggested after his brother stepped out of the race, but a representative of a powerful, legitimate political strain in the city, county and United States. And we have a left party, for which Olivia Chow is the mayoralty candidate.
Why not have all three leaders on the next Council? Just as it's not automatic a party leader is in Parliament, this shouldn't be automatic. The candidate would have to muster a required level of votes to win a member-at-large seat (and agree to serve, since some may prefer to move on with their life). I used to think the bar should be high, to keep this from happening too easily, particularly if a nobody was the only challenger for mayor: Perhaps 35 per cent of the vote, or even 40 per cent. But now, in some measure aided by what I see in Toronto, I'm inclined towards 25 per cent.
Of course, that would not have allowed David Soknacki or Karen Stintz to have been elected as members-at-large according to where they were polling, and both were skilled enough to have served admirably on previous councils. But maybe this system might help challengers like that, in less emotionally charged elections, to gain more traction as they are no longer viewed as a hopeless cause.
But the most significant benefit would be encouraging challenges to incumbent mayors. Take the city of Kingston, where Mark Gerretsen seemed a shoo-in in his re-election bid. Young and popular, with a golden surname (his father was arguably Kingston's best mayor of the past 35 years and a cherished member at Queen's Park), nobody on his Council was willing to take him on, since defeat was likely. But then he withdrew as a candidate, to seek the Liberal nomination federally, which had unexpectedly opened up. Three accomplished city councillors have quickly moved to fill the vacuum and run for the top post: Rick Downes, Dorothy Hector, and Bryan Paterson.
It would have arguably been better for the city if one or more had been willing to challenge Mr. Gerretsen when he was still running for mayor and given the city a choice and a debate. The likeliest would have been Mr. Downes, who usually votes opposite to Mr. Gerretsen on Council. But eight years ago he challenged an incumbent mayor, losing by a mere 730 votes – and as a result was out of civic politics for four years. That was too steep a penalty. Changing the rules to allow members-at-large from the mayoralty losers would have allowed him to stay on Council then – which after such a narrow loss seemed deserved – and might have encouraged him, or others, to take on the incumbent this time.
It also would ensure that Toronto not lose the potential contributions of Doug Ford and Olivia Chow on the next council.