Ontario Premier Doug Ford was re-elected in June with a large Progressive Conservative government. But while his main focus will be on provincial matters, his long-standing interest in municipal politics hasn’t waned in the slightest.
Ford was a Toronto city councillor (2010-2014) when his late brother, Rob, served as mayor. He ran in the Toronto mayoral election in 2014, losing to John Tory—and would have run again in 2018 had then-Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown not resigned. As premier, he reduced the number of Toronto city council seats from 47 to 25, cut back on wasteful municipal spending, and signed a three-stop Line 2 subway extension with Tory.
Now, he’s about to change the power structure in the cities of Ottawa and Toronto with a U.S.-style “strong mayor” plan.
This isn’t a new idea for Ford. Far from it, in fact.
“I believe in a strong mayor system, like they have in the States. The mayor should have veto power … so he has enough power to stop council,” he told the Globe and Mail in a Feb. 17, 2011, interview. “The mayor should be the mayor. At the end of the day … the mayor’s responsible for everything.”
Ford knew that a mayor only had one vote in a sea of municipal politicians. “You’ve got to have your 23 votes to get it passed” in a 45-member council, he said. He supported a mayor overriding council “100 per cent … so the mayor has veto power” and highlighted “Mayor [Richard] Daley, in Chicago” as an example of a strong mayor who “got things done.”
A decade later, Ford’s majority PC government will easily be able to pass legislation to implement an American-style “strong mayor” plan. According to several reports, the mayors would have the ability to prepare and table city budgets, appoint chief administrative officers, hire and fire all non-statutory department heads, and override zoning bylaws. The Ontario PCs will also use the model of some U.S. cities to ensure a two-thirds majority vote of city councillors can override a mayoral veto.
Is Ford’s “strong mayor” plan a good idea, or nothing more than weak sauce?
There are benefits to having a strong mayor. The officeholder would be at a political level similar to a provincial premier and Canadian prime minister, for instance. He or she would be able to manage day-to-day affairs at city hall and ensure a particular political direction was met. The influence of one-issue and niche city councillors would be minimized, as would occasional grandstanding efforts. Veto power to oppose policies he or she felt wouldn’t make sense for the city would be in place, too.
But while I support the premier, I’ve never supported a “strong mayor” plan. It places far too much power in the hands of one politician, the mayor, and further reduces the role of city councillors.
It’s fine in theory to have a politically “stronger” mayor over a “weaker” one, but the cities of Toronto and Ottawa are fairly left-leaning. Voters typically elect city councillors and mayors who fit within this very narrow political ideology, including Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens. While there have been right-leaning mayors, including Larry O’Brien (Ottawa) and the aforementioned Rob Ford (Toronto), their numbers have been few and far between.
Jim Watson, the outgoing Ottawa mayor, is a former Liberal MPP and cabinet minister. He’s supported costly left-leaning environmental measures such as a Climate Change Master Plan to build a “greener city,” and spent billions on light rail transit while being accused of not being fully transparent about briefings (which he’s denied). Tory, who is a good bet to win a third term in office in Toronto, is a left-leaning conservative. He’s passed the multi-year, multi-billion dollar (and still ongoing) SmartTrack plan for rapid transit rail service, and favours gun control and a citywide handgun ban. He supports the “strong mayor” plan in principle, but still wants to look at the legislation.
City councillors, even left-leaning ones, therefore serve as an occasional albeit imperfect check on the municipal process. While they’ll still have the ability to overturn some vetoes in a “strong mayor” city, their role will largely be turned into meaningless, taxpayer-funded seat warmers. That’s neither fiscally responsible nor politically logical.
Having a “strong mayor” plan with a heavily weakened city council doesn’t make much sense. This is far from the best or most democratic way to reform these archaic institutions and improve accountability in both cities.
My hope is Premier Ford will consider some of these intangibles before he makes Ottawa’s and Toronto’s mayors a whole lot stronger. A weak response wouldn’t be the right course of action.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Michael Taube, a longtime newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.