Toronto council makes decisions and Doug Ford’s government keeps changing them
April 17, 2019
Transit plans overshadowed by Premier Doug Ford’s own transit map. An opioid crisis made more challenging by provincial funding cuts. Uncertainty over the amalgamation of public health units.
More than 100 days since a smaller Toronto city council took office -- a decision also of the Ford government’s making -- the mayor and the city’s 25 councillors were once again preoccupied Tuesday with top-down decisions from the province that would upturn their own long-term transit plans and go against their stated policy positions on public health.
Since he was elected premier, Doug Ford, right, has taken a keen interest in Toronto’s government, run by Mayor John Tory, left.
On Tuesday, as the sixth meeting of the council term unfolded, city staff were still scrambling to prepare an updated transit report. Councillors were unclear well into the afternoon on what they would be voting on this week. A debate on future transit expansion was pushed back to 4 p.m. to allow staff time to finalize their report and councillors a chance to -- at least briefly -- review their work.
That’s because last week Ford announced his own transit vision for the city -- a map of mostly subway lines for Etobicoke, downtown, Scarborough, and extending into Richmond Hill with few details on costs, funding, potential ridership, technology, construction logistics or implementation timelines. The premier’s announcement meant that recommendations city staff made as recently as last week to move forward with dedicating funding to council’s own priorities and construction on some projects, like a one-stop Scarborough subway, were rendered irrelevant.
Councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 10 Spadina-Fort York) was particularly blunt, saying if Ford wants to be the mayor of Toronto, he should run for that office.
“In the first nine months of this provincial government, they have cut council in half without notice, they have announced plans to significantly cut Toronto Public Health without notice and the have drawn a complete new transit map without notice,” he said. “As the largest city in this country and as the economic engine of this province, we cannot operate under these conditions.”
Since he was elected premier in June, after losing the mayoral race to Mayor John Tory in 2014, Ford himself has taken keen interest in the running of Toronto’s government.
A number of his government’s budgetary decisions will have significant consequences for the city.
On Tuesday morning, council voted to request the provincial government reinstate funding to overdose prevention sites that found out suddenly late last month they were being forced to shut down. Two sites in Toronto were given emergency exemptions to legally operate by the federal government, but remain without government funding. A third site, run by Toronto Public Heath, remains in limbo.
The move by Ford’s government prompted the city’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, to say she expected the decision would lead to more deaths from opioid overdoes.
On Monday, the board of health held an emergency meeting to consider another just-announced cut, this time a plan to reduce the number of public health units in the province. That decision, the board heard, is feared to lead to tens of millions of dollars in cuts annually to the Toronto unit, though the medical officer of health did not confirm any numbers.
Council voted Tuesday to request the province maintain the current funding formula for Toronto Public Health and other provincial programs.
City staff also updated council on the decision, buried in the recent provincial budget document, to claw back $1.1 billion Toronto expected to receive from the provincial gas tax over 10 years. Already, the TTC had committed $585 million of that money to state-of-good repair projects for the public transit system.
Councillor Brad Bradford (Ward 19 Beaches-East York) said council has seen “quite a disconnect between the province and the city,” which makes doing the job of a councillor difficult. He spoke to the Star in his office during a break in the council proceedings as he and others were just learning of the updated staff recommendations addressing the province’s own transit plan.
“File after file we constantly seem to be responding to the province instead of leading on the things that Torontonians elected us to lead on and that’s been challenging,” he said. “It’s been very challenging when we continually just hear these announcements from the province via letters posted online or press conferences. That to me is not really the way you negotiate or bargain in good faith.”
After the size of council was cut from the planned 47 to 25 wards mid-election last year, a special committee to address the future governance of the city was created by the new, smaller council.
Councillor Stephen Holyday (Ward 2 Etobicoke Centre), who chairs that committee, said there has been an increase in “fighting with the province,” which he believes is “politically motivated in many ways by some of my colleagues.”
“Is constantly fighting with the provincial government from a global perspective, is that for the betterment of the city?” he asked. “Sucking up resources, reports after reports on things that we really don’t truly have control over and would maybe want to make a statement over, I’m not sure is the best use of our time and resources.”
Considering how to move forward with transit is a separate issue, he said, but added it’s worth considering who is contributing what amount to determine the relative position any government has in that discussion.
“If the province is coming in with a whole pile of money, then rightfully or fairly so they should have a lot to say when it comes to this.”
At a meeting of the governance committee last week, Doug Earl, a member of the citizen group Charter City Toronto, said the committee must also look long term at council regaining power.
“The reason this committee exists is because the government of Ontario has taken the decision that the government of Toronto is not competent to manage its own affairs and so it has taken the decision to impose direct rule of the city from Queen’s Park, on governance, on transit, on who knows what else in the future,” Earl said. “I understand this committee has a responsibility to clean up the governance mess that was dumped on your doorstep by Doug Ford, but I think you have to go beyond that.”
The group, which includes former mayor John Sewell, proposes Toronto become a charter city, which would legally give Toronto full jurisdiction over local decision-making -- a status long granted cities like New York, Chicago and London.
Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 12 Toronto--St. Paul’s) successfully moved a motion at council last year to ask the federal government to provide a way to establish a city charter so that it would have authority over its own elections, governance structure and land planning issues.
“I think what Doug Ford has done has both exposed to most people now how powerless cities in Canada are due to the fact that they are considered constitutionally creatures of their respective province,” he said. “But he’s also successfully engaged in a hostile takeover at Toronto City Hall.”