Publications, opinions, and speeches
Toronto needs much more than a new mayor to shape its future
Published on 10/11/2014
The election of a new mayor provides Toronto the chance for a fresh start. With fear of constant leadership paralysis now banished, mayor-elect John Tory and the newly elected city councillors have their task cut out to restore confidence at City Hall.
But before they set out to do so, it would be wise for them to see the brighter side of what the past four years have taught us. It’s also an opportune time to look at ways and means to strengthen Toronto and our other major city regions with more powers.
Most of us would have garnered the perception that Toronto has fallen into deep dysfunction. But reality couldn’t be more different. While the city could be said to have been mayor-less, it definitely was not leaderless.
At city hall, after a brief failed honeymoon for Mayor Rob Ford, members of the council and staff filled the leadership vacuum. Toronto’s non-partisan system, while messy, allowed its city government to deliver despite the disruption. Council and the city’s senior management found equilibrium on a wide range of issues from transit to housing to electoral reform.
Another ingredient in Toronto’s success has been the city-building and civic leadership that has emerged from vibrant and innovative private firms, public institutions, non-profits, and cultural sector organizations that form its wider civil society. Over the last decade these collective efforts have helped the city to be consistently among the world’s top 10 in terms of livability, prosperity, and attractiveness for businesses.
Both municipal politicians and public servants should harness these powerful elements of growth and energy that exist outside city hall by embracing and engaging with them more frequently than before. All said, city leadership is most effective as a collaborative endeavour with many faces.
Regrettably, there is only so much that elected leaders and civil society can do for Toronto. There are strong inhibitors in Canada that prevent cities from being in the vanguard of progress and change. The historical time warp, dating back to the time of Confederation almost 150 years ago, has misaligned tasks and tools at the municipal level.
Our cities are creatures of the provinces under the Constitution Act and have few residual powers. At the same time they have an array of mandates for the provision of goods and services ranging from police and fire protection to public health. There are responsibilities to create effective movement of people and goods, either by transit or roads, and to create housing for people not served by the commercial housing market.
On things like transit, affordable housing and energy systems, the costs are enormous and well beyond what the meagre revenue tools of the cities can handle. Thus they must go to either the province or the federal government for help, other levels of government that have other agendas, pressures, timetables and ideas. Cities generally must go cap in hand, tugging on their forelock, as they lack the fiscal capacity to control their own destiny.
Sufficiently persuasive mayors like Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi and the newly minted John Tory might be able to pull this off once or twice a term if there is a friendly face in the other chair, but such synchronicity has proven rare in recent years.
Mayors and councillors at the municipal level know these are pressure issues, but their governments lack the fiscal capacity to deal with them. There has been little evidence produced to show that these funds can be generated by wringing out efficiencies.
Whatever the legal and jurisdictional framework or differences in responsibilities, cities need a powerful set of levers to introduce change. Devolution of powers, especially to generate revenue, is needed to promote fiscal accountability and change municipal practices for better governance.
While elections enable citizens to choose their leaders, redistribution of powers to large urban regions would empower those mayors and councillors to give their cities much more control over their destinies.
Originally published in The Toronto Star on November 7, 2014.