Resist the temptation to give Toronto’s mayor any more power.
The only essential power lacking in the office is one the provincial government will not give — independence from the shackles of provincial control that would insulate the city from arbitrary decisions at Queen’s Park.
In other words, Mayor John Tory doesn’t need to lord over city council; he needs Premier Doug Ford’s boots off the city’s neck.
In the absence of the latter — and in the aftermath of Doug Ford’s vindictive attack on Toronto council, cutting it nearly in half — faux reforms that focus on the mayor’s powers are misplaced. The attention is best concentrated on how to manage the same workload with half the councillors.
Toronto’s practice in normal times has been to consult widely on such matters and arrive at a compromise that straddles those who could care less about government, local democracy, public consultation or civic engagement and those who may be consumed by the ideal. The Doug Ford tornado — quick and vicious — leaves little time for careful consideration.
The new city council will meet in December. Would-be reformers have seized the opportunity to offer free advice. Much of it is good, when directed at the opportunities to replace elected officials with citizens on the myriad of city-owned boards and commissions.
But even here, caution is required. Civic appointments to these agencies have been corrupted in the past. They often do not reflect the city’s diversity, are populated by the privileged, and become a landing spot for political patronage.
While city council is forced into an urgent decision on its committee structure, post Ford tsunami, there is no urgency or need to change the statutory powers of the mayor, vis-à-vis city council.
Every four years, the hand-wringing and speculation and handicapping begin as soon as the civic election ends. Did city council shift right or left? Will the mayor be able to control city council and follow through on his or her mandate? Does the mayor need more power in a system that does not have party politics, neither cabinet solidarity nor a mayor’s veto?
City council is always tilted to the political right, but only so slightly. This has not changed, and will not for a long time. Downtown wards and their large population are leftist. Etobicoke is most conservative. Parts of North York and Scarborough are right-leaning. And a large number of wards are middle-of-the road moderates. It’s a Toronto thing.
On city council, the so-called moderates, properly dubbed the Mushy Middle, always carry the balance of power. But because of their fluctuating principles, they can easily be co-opted — bought for the price of a “plum” political appointment.
It is the mayor who controls the appointments — even though city council can, theoretically, overturn them. In practice, council approves 99 per cent of the mayor’s appointments at the first council meeting, including his executive committee, hand-picked deputy mayors and his allies who have nearly all pledged allegiance to the chief magistrate.
On the old council there were literally hundreds of positions that councillors filled on standing committees of council, city-run agencies, boards and commissions. Now that city council is half the size the work still needs to be done. There will be no shortage of plum appointments, even if many are farmed out to citizens.
Therefore, only a totally inept mayor would be incapable of “buying” enough loyalty from the majority of councillors so he is guaranteed majority support on issues he cares about. If he can’t, that is a clear signal the mayor is a bust, not that he should be propped up by giving him more power.
One should anticipate the worst in such arrangements. What happens if the worse possible mayoral candidate somehow gets the most votes and takes the city down an unimaginable path? Current political reality makes such musing wise, not theoretical.
Imagine if Rob Ford had been afforded statutory powers to override city council? Imagine if he could have made his councillor brother, the now knife-wielding premier of Ontario, his official henchman unchecked by council vote? Imagine if he could have hired and fired the police chief at will — especially if the chief has ordered an investigation into the mayor’s drug-abusing habits?
Imagine such a “strong mayor” at Toronto city hall in cahoots with a quixotic premier at Queen’s Park. Together, they might divert hundreds of millions of dollars away from building universities and helping the poor and, instead, throw billions of dollars at subway lines that are not needed.
Imagine them scheming to end the city’s land transfer tax, robbing the city of $500 million in annual revenue, forcing city hall to sell off government housing, curtail spending in priority neighbourhoods, cut civic and arts grants, deplete environmental initiatives, remove bike lanes and those “damned streetcars blocking up our city,” and turn over city assets to private sector plundering.
Toronto doesn’t need a “strong mayor” political system. The city needs a mayor strong enough to stand up for Toronto against the wave of disastrous policy decisions expected to come from Queen’s Park.
That strength comes from city council, not from subjugating it.
Royson James is a former Star reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @roysonjames