Toronto Mayor John Tory welcomed the prospect of gaining more authority as the province considers introducing a strong-mayor system, while critics warned that the city has recent evidence of the risk of empowering its top politician.
Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday the policy shift was being planned for Toronto and Ottawa and it could eventually be expanded to other large cities.
Although specifics about the new powers were still being sorted out, Mr. Ford said the mayors would have veto authority on certain issues that come before council. This could then be overruled by a two-thirds majority of council members.
Under the current system, Toronto’s mayor has only one vote on council but has considerable power to manage issues and lean on councillors for support. Mr. Tory has been able to enact his agenda through two terms without losing any substantive council votes.
Mr. Ford said he wasn’t approached by any mayor seeking these powers, but he feels it’s the right thing to do as long as mayors don’t abuse it. “If they aren’t respectful, they won’t be in office in four years,” he said.
The province is expected to table the legislation during a summer session of the legislature starting Aug. 8.
Asked about the prospect of getting more power, Mr. Tory said that he had previously supported a strong-mayor system. The powers of the mayor have been discussed for years, he noted: “I’ve said that I was favourably disposed.”
The possibility of Ontario moving some cities toward a strong-mayor system was first reported by the Toronto Star.
Mr. Ford, who served previously as Toronto city councillor and whose brother Rob completed a scandal-plagued term as mayor, has long bemoaned what he saw as the slow pace of political progress at city hall. More than a decade ago he was calling for a strong-mayor system, pointing to the example of Chicago, where Mr. Ford said former mayor Richard Daley “got things done.”
“I just think that the mayor of Toronto or Ottawa, or any mayor, they’re accountable for everything, but they have the same single vote as a councillor and no matter if it’s a good decision or a tough decision that they make, they have to be accountable,” Mr. Ford told reporters outside the Ontario Legislature Wednesday morning.
The provincial government argues expanded mayoral power could help address the housing shortage in major cities and get development approved more quickly.
“This concept gives the powers to the heads of council so they can get those priority projects done,” said Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark.
Eric Lombardi, a founder of the pro-housing advocacy group More Neighbours Toronto, said empowering a mayor could help that person direct political attention and funding to issues such as affordable housing or shelters. But he said there was no evidence Mr. Tory would do so.
“Just because John Tory is receiving more powers from the province doesn’t mean that he has the vision to use them any better than he’s used the powers that he has in a weak mayor system,” Mr. Lombardi said.
“Could these reforms, depending on how they’re constructed … help on housing? Of course it could. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that the mayor has articulated zero vision on this issue.”
Urban policy consultant Brian Kelcey, who worked as vice-president for policy at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, said the current system at Toronto city hall is effective at slowing down reform, regardless of who holds the mayoralty. He pointed out that a new mayor can’t direct staff even to start work on signature promises from a winning campaign without first getting council support.
And he noted that the proposed provincial shift would come against the backdrop of a global trend toward stronger-mayor systems.
“It’s one thing to say you don’t want that model for Toronto or Ottawa,” Mr. Kelcey said. “It’s quite another to pretend that it’s by definition wrong or unusual to consider this model given how many other democratic cities around the world are already operating very effectively and very democratically with more authority in the mayor’s office.”
However, critics drew a parallel between this provincial move and four years ago when, in the midst of a municipal election campaign, Mr. Ford cut Toronto city council nearly in half. Mr. Ford’s move to strengthen the office of mayor comes with a municipal election barely three months away and Mr. Tory running again.
City Councillor Josh Matlow noted that this shift would diminish the responsibility of councillors. And he pointed to Rob Ford as a reason not to increase the powers of the mayor.
“When we had a mayor who was smoking crack cocaine while in office and under an active police investigation, council had the ability to keep him in check and provide a functional local government,” he said.
“The very people who might want John Tory to have more powers now may feel very differently if a mayor is elected in future years that has different priorities or different values. So think of the big picture.”
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