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Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark answers questions after an announcement in the Ontario Legislature in Toronto in 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The mayors of Ontario’s two largest cities will soon have the power to veto budget decisions and bylaws that contradict provincial priorities, under legislation introduced Wednesday by the Ontario government.

The province says the “strong-mayor” authority for Toronto and Ottawa will largely be tied to Queen’s Park’s plan to vastly increase the construction of housing in those cities and provincewide over the next decade.

Tabling the “Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act,” Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark said, if passed, these new powers would be used by the two mayors to support the goal of building 1.5 million new homes.

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However, the authority could go far beyond housing. Under the proposed new powers, the mayors would have the authority to overrule council and veto an approved bylaw if it is deemed to conflict with “provincial priorities.” This could include a zoning bylaw to permit housing projects or other decisions related to the construction and maintenance of infrastructure that supports residential developments, such as transit and roads.

They would also have the power to veto any budget amendments brought forward by other council members.

Mr. Clark said that with more than one third of the province’s projected growth over the next decade expected in the two cities, the government is seeking co-operation in order to get building.

But he didn’t provide specifics on how he anticipates these new powers will accelerate housing projects. When asked to provide an example of a stalled housing project in which the veto power could have been used to advance development, Mr. Clark didn’t directly answer the question.

“Ontarians are counting on someone who can take the responsibility to get things done,” he told reporters Wednesday. “That’s why we’re making the bar higher for mayors and making it easier to hold them accountable based on the decisions that they make. We’re giving them the opportunity to do better.”

Gabriel Eidelman, assistant professor at the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said he will be watching to see how the legislation unfolds, especially with the link to provincial priorities. He believes this veto proposal is unprecedented in Canada.

Strong-mayor powers are common in the United States, where the heads of council have more authority over appointments to boards and committees and other decisions.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson speaks during an announcement at a public transit garage in Ottawa on March 4, 2021.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

“It’s really hard to know how this will be used. If the veto is conditional on a provincial priority, what would that look like on the council floor? How loosely might that be interpreted?” he said.

Last month, Premier Doug Ford said strong-mayor powers will be given a trial run in Toronto and Ottawa and could be expanded to other large cities in the future, but no further details were provided in the legislation. Mr. Clark said he has been in communication with all 444 heads of council across the province to continue the dialogue about the powers.

If passed, the proposed changes would take effect Nov. 15, which is the start of the new council term after October municipal elections.

Mr. Clark said provincial priorities within the scope of the veto would be laid out in regulations approved by the government. He added that the veto power for bylaws wouldn’t extend beyond these priorities, with the ministry saying there will be provincial oversight if it is found that mayors are misusing the power.

Preparing annual budgets would become a responsibility of the two mayors and no longer a task for entire councils. City staff could still be delegated to prepare budget, under the authority of the mayor. Once tabled, councillors would have a prescribed amount of time – not yet disclosed – to pass amendments.

Any amendment could be overruled by the mayor with use of the veto power. Council may in turn overrule a veto decision on bylaws or budget amendments by a two-thirds majority vote.

Toronto Mayor John Tory takes questions during a news conference on Dec. 4, 2018.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

To veto a bylaw, mayors would have to give notice within two days of council approving it and provide a written rationale. A council vote on overruling the veto would need to be held within 21 days.

The two mayors would also have the authority to hire and fire department heads, and appoint a chief administrative officer and the chairs of committees.

Both the current mayors of Toronto and Ottawa responded to the legislation on Wednesday with differing takes. Toronto Mayor John Tory, who will be seeking re-election in October, said in a statement that he supports more powers for mayors and his priorities around housing will remain the same. He said even with the powers, the city will still need support from other levels of government and strong partnerships for the shared priorities of transit, shelters and housing.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, not running in October, said he doesn’t see the purpose of the powers, including the veto authority, pointing to his success rate on council votes of 98 per cent. Mr. Watson said he believes there are other options to increase housing, including putting an end to exclusionary zoning policies, which the province stopped short of doing in its previous housing legislation in March. Mr. Watson said the province can take other steps rather than putting it on the mayors, including increasing funding for affordable housing.

“I never needed that superpower to get the job done,” he said in an interview. “What I would ask the province to do is speed up their processes.”

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