Adam Vaughan is a former Toronto city councillor, a former federal Liberal member of Parliament and a Distinguished Fellow at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities.
Being the mayor of Toronto or Ottawa is not as easy as it looks. But it’s not as hard as Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes it out to be, in his justification for the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act. If passed, as expected, it will give the cities’ mayors new powers, including the ability to table the annual budget, appoint senior city staff and veto some council decisions if doing so “would further a provincial priority” according to terms set by the provincial government. (A council could override the mayor’s veto with a two-thirds majority vote.)
What the Premier fails to grasp, however, is that these two municipalities don’t need stronger mayors – they need to be stronger cities.
Indeed, there’s one question no one seems to be asking: After three decades of provincial overreach through forced amalgamations, downloaded services, cuts to council sizes, delegation of some powers and Queen’s Park taking over other key municipal tasks, why are Ontario cities so weak?
These extraordinary challenges are affecting cities beyond Ontario. Global inflation is pushing costs up across the board while municipalities remain trapped in a made-in-Canada political culture that cherishes tax freezes in good times and bad. That could produce a national catastrophe – though it might show up most visibly in the country’s biggest city and its national capital.
Still, the act misses the point. Power isn’t the problem: money is.
Toronto Mayor John Tory, for example, has yet to lose an official council vote, and yet he still apparently needs more political heft. Mayors already have all kinds of power at their disposal – some of it codified, some invisible and some personal – and in Toronto, they pretty much get what they ask for from council.
What they can’t get? New sources of funding.
The property tax base on which cities rely is inelastic. User fees are limited in scope, and other local charges are woefully small. Without new fiscal powers, cities just can’t solve the problems that confront residents.
Instead, what Queen’s Park is delivering is a series of solutions in search of a problem. Under the proposed act, power will be taken away from already underresourced council members and local citizens. Worse, new powers will also be given to the province’s Minister of Municipal Affairs. Things need to flow in the opposite direction.
By setting out the terms by which the mayor can use the veto power, the provincial government will be able to ensure that local priorities align with its own. If citizens revolt, the mayor will effectively be expected to keep them in line.
Take transit, for example. Already, Queen’s Park is choosing which routes to build, overriding local planning processes for new transit and scooping up development dollars needed for new community centres, parks, sewers and sidewalks. Meanwhile, transit systems’ fuel costs are surging and ridership levels have plunged amid the pandemic.
It’s all well and good to build new transit infrastructure, but who will pay the bill to operate it, or to repair and maintain it? And if council asks for transit service changes to boost ridership, would a strong mayor align with the province’s interests and veto that? Without a clear definition, “provincial priority” is a pretty shaky hook to hang your chain of office on.
The act will also technically allow the mayor to craft the city budget. But with Mr. Ford’s history of cutting funding to municipal programs and the province’s ability to direct spending and regulate municipal revenue options, the reality is that the budget will be the mayor’s in name only.
Mr. Ford’s proposed strong-mayor powers are a false olive branch to cities. He is effectively telling Ottawa and Toronto: Do what we say, or we will make you do it. Mayors will get the blame, while Queen’s Park will retain the actual responsibility, resources and credit; councillors, meanwhile, will be elected to participate in what is increasingly little more than a local debating society.
If the act passes, municipalities will be hurt once again by provincial meddling, and the so-called strength of their mayors – who have long been set up for failure – will pale in comparison with Queen’s Park’s. The legislation does not offer one new dollar to solve the actual problems confronting people in these cities – only a redistribution of power that will leave citizens increasingly governed by officials elected by people who live elsewhere.
Mr. Ford couldn’t get elected mayor in Toronto, but if the act passes, it won’t matter – because he’ll be the Premier.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.