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New council must debate 'strong mayor' powers, former Toronto mayors warn
Oct. 17, 2022

A group of former Toronto mayors is urging the city's next council to sort out the rules of engagement around the "strong mayor" system as their first order of business after the municipal election.

The former mayors say even though Premier Doug Ford's government introduced, and quickly passed, legislation establishing the sweeping powers this summer, council can still influence how and when they are used.

Art Eggleton, John Sewell, David Crombie, Barbara Hall and David Miller made the call at a forum held by the University of Toronto's School of Cities in partnership with CBC News this week. The event was organized to shed further light on the new powers given to the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa.

The mayors came together earlier this summer to call on the province to abandon its plan to introduce the powers, which enable the mayors of the province's two largest cities to prepare and approve the budget, give them more control over committee and agency appointments and the ability to hire and fire city staff.

The powers also give the mayors new authority to override some council decisions that don't align with Ontario government priorities, with the province saying it created the bill to help build more housing.

"No mayor of Toronto worth their salt would accept or advocate for the powers that the province has just given them, particularly in the way it's happened," David Miller, who was mayor of Toronto from 2003 to 2010, said at the event.

"I think the powers are wrong. They're likely to produce significantly adverse results for local democracy. And they've come about in a really malevolent way that's completely undemocratic."

Powers will help build more housing, Ford government says
Ontario Premier Doug Ford introduced the powers this summer just weeks after winning a second majority government.

But the former mayors don't think that the final word has been spoken when it comes to how the powers are wielded, even though the legislation has been passed.

In fact, agreeing on the rules of engagement surrounding how the powers are used is well within the rights of the next mayor and council, says David Crombie, who was mayor of Toronto from 1972 to 1978. Outside of the bill's requirement that the mayor present a budget on a set timetable, most of the other powers are "permissive," he says.

"It says the mayor 'may,' not 'must,'" he said.

John Tory touts his record while his rivals paint a picture of a city that's struggling
"So that means that when the elections are over and the council comes together in its first meeting, what it should be doing is setting the agenda … and it should deal with this legislation."

Crombie says this will give city council, and Toronto residents, an opportunity to have a truly informed debate.

"I'm totally opposed to the legislation, but there are good people who have other views," he said.

"We need a public debate; they are changing the fundamental principles upon which our local democracy in Toronto rests."

'We've still got a chance' for debate: Crombie
The Ontario government held several days of hearings at Queen's Park this summer, but Crombie and the other former mayors say the legislation was not debated or consulted on properly, given it's such a fundamental change to the way local government operates.

"Right now, we've had a silent mayor, and we've had a provincial government make legislation that is going to change things and there hasn't been any public debate," Crombie said.

"That's a shame. So I'm saying the future is before us, we've still got a chance."

And while the new powers could be used by the newly elected mayor immediately, the two leading candidates in Toronto's mayoral race to win say they're open to having a debate at council.

"I'm quite happy to have a discussion with my colleagues if we all get elected about that," John Tory said.

"But at the end of the day, this is provincial legislation that applies to Ottawa and to Toronto. I would expect that I will continue to carry out my job as mayor, if I'm given that privilege in the same way I had before, which is drawing a consensus as best one can with the council to move forward together on the big things we have to get done."

'Lack of vision' the problem, Penalosa says
Gil Penalosa, Tory's main challenger, says he would have the debate as the first order of business if he were elected mayor, but says he generally opposes the powers.

"There is no lack of powers of the mayor," he said. "There is a lack of vision and action. The reality is that John Tory has won every single motion on any topic that is significant to him, every single one."

At the forum, the mayors were asked what residents could do to voice their concerns about the powers, particularly young people. John Sewell, who served as Toronto's mayor from 1978 to 1980, urged them to take action and pressure the new mayor and council to resist the strong mayor system.

"You've got to start yelling and screaming, saying 'You can't do that. You can't do that, Mr. Mayor.'"