What is the most democratic and effective way to govern a city the size and economic import of Toronto?
Published on 24/08/2018
It’s not every day of the week that one of the world’s great cities turns into a political football. But that is exactly what is happening in Toronto.
Late last month, newly installed Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced his plans to cut the size of Toronto’s city council in half. Mayor John Tory pressed the case for shifting from the city’s weak mayor system – where the mayor is little more than a councillor – to a strong mayor system where the mayor has more significant power. Jennifer Keesmaat, the city’s former chief planner, entered the race for Toronto mayor in large part to fend off attacks by the province on the city’s ability to govern itself.
There have also been calls to de-amalgamate the megacity, which has created a host of problems – the unwieldy council structure, the deep political divide between the old city and what were once its suburbs and a difficult public service restructuring – that remain with us to this day.
Fortunately, the current brouhaha opens up the possibility for having a more serious discussion about the best ways to govern the city. In fact, it begs a deeper and more fundamental question: What is the most democratic and effective way to govern a city of the size and economic import of Toronto?
Toronto surely needs more power to govern itself. It simply cannot be manipulated by the whims of the provincial leaders with political agendas. It is economically bigger than five provinces and makes up half the size of Ontario’s economy. With a population of three million people, Toronto is the fourth largest in North America, bigger than Chicago and roughly the size of Boston, Washington, San Francisco and Seattle combined. With economic output of some US$300-billion, Toronto’s economy is bigger than that of Finland, Portugal or New Zealand and approaching the size of Singapore, Denmark or Ireland.
Most large American cities have far more economic and fiscal power than the City of Toronto. Other countries around the world have moved to devolve economic and fiscal power to their cities and metro areas. They recognize that nobody wins when their leading cities falter. The United Kingdom has established its metro mayors program to shift power from the national level down to cities and metro regions. Toronto is big enough and important enough to be granted the economic and fiscal powers of a province.
The issue goes far beyond the city. While outsiders may resent it, Toronto has an outsized impact as a magnet for the country’s immigrants and the source of the innovations and startup companies that drive the Canadian economy. The province and the country as a whole can’t afford to have an economic entity of this size and economic importance kicked around like a proverbial political football.
It makes little sense to break apart the amalgamated city. It provides the size and scale to compete in the modern global economy. Small hemmed-in cities ringed by more affluent and expanding suburbs have been a recipe for fiscal disaster across the world.
In fact, the amalgamated city is a much better platform for generating the revenue Toronto needs to address its mounting problems of inequality, housing affordability, congestion, transit and public safety.
But we clearly need a more effective system for governing the megacity and overcoming our current divides. This cannot be done by provincial fiat, which by definition weakens the city. It can only be accomplished via open and objective process led by the city itself along with its provincial and federal partners. Fortunately, even as the province attacks the city, the federal government has shown that it is willing to partner and structure new and more effective relationships with Toronto and Canada’s cities.
Few would argue that Toronto city council is a model of good governance. It’s messy, councillors meddle in operations and incumbency is too much the norm. Indeed, hasty amalgamation produced a council that is at once too large and too small: too large for effective discussion of the big issues; too small for effective representation of ward concerns. The community councils established at the same time have not taken root as effective channels in the public process.
It’s time to put everything on the table: the fiscal powers of the city including the ability to levy income and sales taxes, strong mayor versus weak mayor, the size of city council, term limits, the role of community councils, the role of political parties at the municipal level, the possible election of key public servants such as the budget chief or city manager and other matters of governance.
We need to create a new governance system that enables Toronto to truly govern itself, act on its strengths and address its many problems and challenges. The future prosperity of our city, province and nation depends on it. It’s an issue that must be front and centre in this mayor’s race and beyond.
This opinion was first published on August 19, 2018 as a Globe and Mail op-ed.