Do we need a strong Mayor or a City with increased powers?

Following a “leak,” Premier Doug Ford recently confirmed that the Mayors of the City of Toronto and the City of Ottawa would be given “strong mayor” powers by his newly re-elected government. This announcement, coming “out of the blue” (there was no mention of this as a promise during the Premier’s recent election campaign) is little more than an idea until the necessary legislation is introduced into the Legislature. Until then we don’t know the details of the “strong mayor” proposal. 

Nevertheless, the announcement was warmly received by Mayor John Tory of Toronto, and perhaps less warmly by Mayor Jim Watson of Ottawa. However, in the time since the July announcement, the idea has received an increasing amount of media attention, most of it criticism and skepticism. The most frequent reaction is, “why is this measure necessary?” A good question indeed, at least in the case of Toronto. Mayor Tory has been able to win just about every vote that he wanted to win as the Toronto Star’s Shawn Micallef notes “with his endless political capital and control over council that makes other mayors jealous.”

The reality is that Mayor Tory has had to make a judicious retreat in just a small number of cases where he felt that the vote might be in trouble. One example of the latter is Multi-Tenant Housing (what used to be called Rooming Houses) where uneasiness among the suburban councillors who are usually reliable Mayor Tory supporters led to deferral of consideration of proposed reforms. In this case many argued that the solution was to devote more resources to cleaning up the existing system before expanding and replacing it with a new one. The best form of City governance is one where the Mayor has to win the support of council through providing sound leadership and championing initiatives that are well thought out, and also respect the needs and wishes of councillors across the City.

That last point raises the question of the impact of a strong mayor on the ward councillors. Will the “strong mayor” system diminish the role of the local councillor – and will the question at election time become “can she/he work with the Mayor’s agenda?” rather than, “will he/she represent the interests of the ward?”    

And at a more fundamental level, how does the “strong mayor” address the real problem facing the City of Toronto – its increasing financial problems? This year the fiscal gap is in the order of $800million; next year it’s much larger, partly due to the province amending the Development Charges legislation and the Planning Act. For instance, the Section 37 (Community Benefits) switch from a being a “density bonus” to a land value rate basis is estimated by City staff to reduce Toronto’s revenue from Section 37 by 40%. The fundamental imbalance between the City’s revenue needs and its over-reliance on property taxes, and the annual begging excursion to Queen’s Park is not new, but it is getting much worse, and dangerously so. Toronto is a dynamic driving force in the province and should not be treated in this way. By offering Toronto and Ottawa a “strong mayor” is the Premier in fact prescribing a placebo designed to obscure the real issue of provincial dominance over cities – and their continuing refusal to provide the revenue tools that the city needs?

We think so and we invite you to tell the Provincial government that!! 

Our comments are provisional, for the purpose of raising awareness about the issue and helping RAs to make their views known to the Premier prior to legislation being introduced.