This spring, when Doug Ford ran for re-election as premier of Ontario, he neglected to mention he had a side hustle in mind: mayor of Toronto.
Mr. Ford’s desire for Queen’s Park to shadow Toronto City Hall also went unmentioned in July, when vague outlines of his “strong mayor” plan suddenly emerged – an idea that had never been mentioned on the campaign trail. The Premier said in July it was all about getting more housing built.
Its real purpose became plain last week, when legislation was tabled.
The strong-mayor system is one where a mayor has powers beyond those of the other elected municipal councillors. In cities such as Toronto, the mayor today is basically just one vote on city council; the idea of giving the mayor’s office some extra heft has long been under consideration. But that does not appear to be Mr. Ford’s real aim. It looks like he wants to strengthen mayors in Toronto and Ottawa, and perhaps later in other cities, while making them beholden to the provincial government – his government.
The obfuscation about means and ends begins with the name of this peculiar legislation, the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act. The press release trumpets it as “empowering mayors to build housing faster.” We’ve been calling for more housing, faster, for years. But Mr. Ford has all the legislative authority, at Queen’s Park, to do what’s needed on housing. Instead, he’s chosen to spend time squeezing cities, and their mayors.
This bill would give the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa control of their cities’ civil service, taking this out of the hands of council; mayors would also be in charge of city budgets.
More notably, the bill gives the mayor the power to veto council decisions – but only on issues that fit “with a prescribed provincial priority.” The “strong” mayors could also unilaterally put an issue on the council agenda – but, again, only to “advance a prescribed provincial priority.”
In other words, it’s a mayoral veto that the mayor can only use to block council motions the premier doesn’t like. It would, in effect, give Mr. Ford a veto – turning him into the super mayor of the cities.
Such meddling is a pattern with Mr. Ford. After he became premier in 2018, among his first acts was one of pure spite. With a Toronto civic election underway, he abruptly halved the number of council seats to 25, to get back at his old rivals on council. This latest gambit is worse.
And despite the name of the legislation, it is not connected to getting more housing built. Back in February, Mr. Ford’s government received a bold blueprint of how to overhaul housing in Ontario. It was created by a group of outside experts, and Mr. Ford should have adopted their plan. Instead, he quietly shelved it.
The only thing his government has kept from the report is its goal, which is now a marketing slogan – a promise to get 1.5-million homes built. But he has not advanced the necessary zoning changes to get those homes built.
The report’s main call was for Queen’s Park to increase zoning densities, provincewide. Allow cities to grow up more, and out less. One example was to permit, without need for local council approval, buildings of up to 11 storeys on transit routes. Another was to change zoning in many neighbourhoods of detached homes, to preapprove up to four units of housing where only one is currently allowed. The report never mentioned a need for strong mayors.
Mr. Ford’s government had all it needed to write a successful housing bill. It had the blueprints, and the legislative power to make them reality. He could have tabled comprehensive legislation; it could have been called the Zoning Reform To Build 1.5-Million New Homes Act. What he has instead put forward ought to be called the Puppet Mayors Of Weaker Cities Act.
Housing needs to get built, urgently, but on that file, Mr. Ford plans more contemplation: a “Housing Supply Action Plan Implementation Team” that will “provide advice” that considers “the vision” from the February report – which already provided exact detail of what needs to be done.
Mr. Ford has the power to get more housing built in Ontario; to do that, he doesn’t need to make mayors an extension of Queen’s Park. The bill on the table is the worst of all worlds: no real action on housing, and a further erosion of local democracy.
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