Mayor John Tory addressed a slimmed-down city council for the first time on Tuesday, facing two rows of councillors and a row of empty seats, urging them to think bigger, even though the new council is far smaller than planned.
“We’re having this great moment on the world stage right now, where we’re considered a cool, welcoming, respectful, caring place to be,” Tory told the city’s 25 councillors, grouped in the first and second rows of desks in chambers at city hall for the first time since being elected on Oct. 22.
The third row of desks was empty, the result of legislation passed this summer by the province — led by Premier Doug Ford, a former city councillor — that reduced the number of wards in the city to 25 from a planned 47. That legislation is still being challenged in the courts.
Tory said Toronto needs to be “thinking bigger,” and making progress on issues like affordable housing and transit.
“It means being prepared to make ourselves a bit uncomfortable on some issues so that we can make up for the fact we as a city have not kept up in a number of key areas,” Tory said, pointing to problems such as crowded subway platforms and subway cars and congested roads.
Tory, who has promised no tax increase greater than inflation, pointed out that revenue from land transfer taxes is no longer growing and interest rates are rising.
“All of which suggest that we won’t simply be able to do things exactly as we have in the past,” Tory said.
He repeated his promise to hire 200 new police officers for 2018 and said he would, with council’s co-operation, close gaps in the city’s youth equity strategy aimed at helping youth vulnerable to involvement in violence and crime.
Tory and city councillors were ceremonially sworn in at the meeting, although Ward 12 Councillor Josh Matlow (Toronto-St. Paul’s), returning for a third term, did not pledge allegiance to the queen.
“My allegiance is to my country, my city and my community,” said Matlow, after the ceremony. “If I listen to my head and my heart, I just can’t honestly say I’m doing this for Queen Elizabeth II.”
At a reception after the meeting, Ward 17 Councillor Shelley Carroll (Don Valley North), said she thinks it may be easier to reach consensus with 25 councillors instead of 44, the number of councillors last term. Before Ford introduced legislation shrinking Toronto’s city hall, the number of councillors was set to rise to 47.
“I’m really cautiously optimistic that building consensus will become an easier matter because it can happen a little bit faster,” she said, while cautioning that it may not make a difference when council gets to thornier issues.
She feels that there is growing acceptance of the idea of affordable housing because even those who are well-housed see their children and grandchildren struggling to find places to live.
“We’re at a moment now when no matter how old you are, affordable housing is an issue because your children and your grandchildren are struggling to find housing,” said Carroll, who was first elected to council in 2003. “I’m going into communities where the homes are $2.5 million and couples who are in their twilight years and very well-pensioned, are saying ‘Yes, yes, we need affordable housing.’”
Ward 13 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said she’s not so sure fewer councillors will be able to reach consensus more easily, and she is concerned that there aren’t enough of them.
“I think there is going to be less accountability because you have fewer people reading those very important documents — we’re taking care of a $13-billion operating budget; a lot of things go flying across the floor of council and there’s not as many sets of eyes on it and that’s not good,” said Wong-Tam, who is starting her third term.
In a news conference after the meeting, Tory said whether council will work better with fewer members remains to be seen.
“The workability will depend entirely on the people in that room,” he said.
Council is scheduled to meet on Wednesday to debate how to reorganize key committees and agencies with fewer council members.
Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF
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