Publications, opinions, and speeches
Why Toronto’s strong mayor will need a strong council
Published on 11/04/2023
Originally published on TVO.org.
Toronto is heading into a mayoral campaign for the June 26 byelection. While the list of candidates is not set, there are lots of views on what the campaign should be about. Some want housing issues to top the list, others traffic or transit, and still others climate change. The Ontario premier has talked about “lefties” and “toast”!
This is the first Toronto election since the province imposed a “strong mayor” on the city, and the newly elected mayor will have strong-mayor powers with substantially more executive powers. The former mayor initiated staffing up to exercise them. Separately from strong-mayor powers, the next mayor will also have the ill-advised “minority rule” provision from the province — the ability to pass some legislation with only one-third of council approving. This provision has no place in a democracy, but the new mayor need not be saddled with it. They may decline to use it, as the mayor of Ottawa has done.
Strong-mayor systems have their good and bad points. The old system in Toronto, like that in every Canadian city except Ottawa, is known as “weak mayor” or sometimes “mayor-council”: the mayor has some executive powers but is essentially a member of council elected citywide. When the system works well, there is a good balance between mayor and council, and the city’s public service knows how to serve them both.
With the creation of a strong-mayor system, that balance is disrupted. And the minority-rule provision really throws it for a loop. Somehow that balance or equilibrium must be found, and a new mayor will have a big role to play in doing so. It will be tempting to ignore the challenge and indulge in the power, holding sway with only a small cohort of councillors — in Toronto’s case, eight.
That would be a disservice to the city and its residents. Democracy requires many voices and views, a forum for settling differences and finding common ground. A strong mayor needs a strong council, one that is informed and empowered. There are several ways to do that, and candidates for mayor should tell us, in the first place, whether they are going to strengthen council and then how they are going to do so.
In other cities with strong mayors (for example, New York, Chicago, and London), councils are equipped like legislatures. In addition to the staff each councillor has, they have administrative staff that can organize council business, conduct research, and work with their counterparts in the mayor’s office and their colleagues in the city administration. Councils in strong-mayor systems often choose both a head of council and the speaker of council, rather than accept someone appointed by the mayor. They can communicate publicly as a group on behalf of council and often in opposition to the mayor.
Acting as a legislature, they need to consider bylaws, budgets, and other matters and require the ability to analyze in order to know whether to approve, amend, or defeat proposals. Simply relying on the same staff who might have formulated the matters under consideration in the first place is problematic.
The council in a strong-mayor system also needs the ability to design its own governance. In addition to electing its speaker, does it need an executive head of council, other committees, and elected committee chairs? And does, say, an executive head of council have to be elected by general election or just by council members themselves, as happened with the former chairs of Toronto’s Metro Council? (Metro Council was formed in 1953, and its first chair, Fred Gardiner, was appointed by Ontario premier Leslie Frost. All others were elected/re-elected by council; they didn’t have to be members of council until 1987, when the rule changed. Metro Council was terminated in 1997 with amalgamation.)
Another way to achieve some of the same ends is to allow political parties to operate at the municipal level, something Ontario does not currently permit. In some cities, like Vancouver and Montreal, political parties exist, mostly for elections, when they run slates of candidates. They often arise at election time around a particular candidate for mayor and may dissolve after. Some are ongoing, but they don’t typically play a strong role in governing.
Some observers have pointed out that there are actually political allegiances within Toronto and some other councils — some councillors are personally aligned with Liberals, Conservatives, or New Democrats, but these are generally weak groupings. They don’t run slates of candidates, articulate campaign platforms so voters know what each candidate stands for, conduct ongoing research on important public issues that would inform elected members on legislation, or discipline members who are unethical or unprofessional. Parties may also help with the incumbency issue in municipal politics, which sees incumbents re-elected more than 90 per cent of the time. Effective parties value renewal, and the party itself can help with ensuring that the knowledge from long experience is passed on to new candidates.
Allowing political parties at the municipal level wouldn’t replace the need to create a strong city council but might make politics more transparent. Parties can help the public understand the issues of the day and the people who want to be elected. They have downsides too, like exclusivity and unhelpful partisanship, but offer benefits in transparency and management of the public business, something that would improve municipal government.
The Ontario government has been disruptive to Toronto’s governance by arbitrarily reducing the size of council, offering minority rule, and imposing a strong-mayor system. While the next mayor of Toronto can’t remedy the first point, they can reject minority rule and articulate how they’re going to strengthen council to operate as a strong partner to a strong mayor in order to provide better democratic government in the city.