Doug Ford gives ‘strong mayors’ the ‘anti-democratic’ power to ram through bylaws with little council support
Nov. 17, 2022
At the behest of Toronto Mayor John Tory, Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are giving “strong mayors” the power to pass bylaws with only one-third of council support.
In a move immediately denounced as “anti-democratic,” legislation reforming regional municipal governance -- to expedite housing construction -- also gives the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa authority to ram through bylaws they deem in line with provincial priorities.
Three years after abandoning a bid for regional reform, Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark tabled legislation Wednesday revamping how that layer of government could work in the regions of Peel, York, Durham, Halton, Niagara and Waterloo.
But his new law is being criticized because it will also allow “strong mayors” in Toronto and Ottawa to push through city bylaws with just one-third of council support.
“These proposals are bold. I’m not going to walk away from that,” Clark told reporters at Queen’s Park.
“We’ve had some discussions with Toronto and Ottawa. Certainly out of our discussions with Toronto, we made this addition to the powers,” he said, referring to conversations with Tory.
Clark said it would “provide some certainty” so a strong mayor -- who in earlier legislation passed in September could be overruled by a two-thirds majority of council -- would now also be able pass bylaws deemed a “provincial priority.”
While the mayor can still be overridden by a vote of two-thirds of council, he would now be empowered to push through any bylaw deemed a provincial priority with the support of one-third of council.
Those priorities include anything related to affordable housing projects, public transit, highways and other infrastructure.
In a statement, Tory’s office said the mayor “supports this update to the strong mayor powers that will only apply to items deemed a provincial priority and that he also deems a Toronto priority.”
“He will use these additional measures only when they are necessary to move forward housing and other key priorities,” the mayor’s office said.
“But he has also been clear that his leadership style and his overall approach to city council won’t change -- he will continue to work with city council to get things done for the people of Toronto.”
Tory’s office said the mayor “raised this change with the province to make sure we can get more housing built as quickly as possible, to avoid NIMBYism, and to help make sure this new system works as efficiently as possible.”
As first revealed by the Star in July, Toronto and Ottawa, where rookie Mark Sutcliffe is now chief magistrate, are the first cities to have strong mayors with expanded authority over budgets and the hiring and firing of senior staff.
NDP MPP Jessica Bell (University-Rosedale) said “this act is an anti-democratic move.”
But Clark said the proposed amendments -- ostensibly to eliminate bureaucratic duplication between regions and the cities within them -- are needed for the Tories to keep their campaign pledge to build 1.5 million new houses in Ontario over the next decade.
That’s an average of 150,000 housing starts per year, even though the most since 1987 has been 100,000 annually.
“We are again taking decisive action to provide municipal leaders the tools they need to plan for future population growth and get more homes built faster,” the minister said.
To that end, the province will appoint “facilitators (to) work with local governments to assess the best mix of roles and responsibilities between upper and lower-tier municipalities.”
Clark stressed he would not “presuppose” the outcome of the provincial operatives’ reviews -- and left open the door to potential amalgamations of regions.
That means there could be a reprise of the 1997 “megacity” initiative that created the current city of Toronto out of six smaller municipalities.
As part of Wednesday’s bill, Clark will reappoint the regional chairs of Peel, York and Niagara -- Nando Iannicca, Wayne Emerson and Jim Bradley respectively -- while municipal councils in Durham, Halton and Waterloo will again elect their chairs for the new council term that ends in 2026.
“This approach will provide continuity and stability at the regional level as facilitators consider how best to extend strong mayor powers to existing two-tier municipalities that are shovel-ready and committed to growth and cutting red tape,” he said.
But the New Democrats’ Bell said that change usurps the elected regional councils in Peel, York and Niagara, who would have selected their own chairs.
“These regional chairs were on track to be elected by councillors. Now Doug Ford has given himself the power to hand-pick his yes men to do his bidding,” she said.
“It is an affront to democracy.”
Ford has said strong mayor powers are to be extended to Mississauga, Brampton, Hamilton, Vaughan and other larger municipalities next year.
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, whose city has been pushing to leave the confines of Peel Region, praised Clark’s legislation.
“This is a positive step toward reforming local government in a manner that addresses the concerns of Mississaugans,” said Crombie.
“I’m confident this assessment will create a path for Mississauga’s independence and lead to greater fairness for taxpayers and less red tape for residents and businesses, so both the city and province can plan for future growth and support the province’s goal of building 120,000 new homes in Mississauga over the next decade.”
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said streamlining of governance will ensure more gets done.
“Redundancy is the enemy of productivity,” said Brown.
“I am glad the provincial government is looking at ways to make municipalities in Peel more efficient by removing duplication. This will help address the challenges of growth and support the construction of the homes Brampton residents so desperately need,” he said.
But interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said Clark’s Better Municipal Governance Act was so “aggressive” that it could actually hinder housing construction.
“The goal is to build more homes, but they’re redrawing the way regional planning happens,” said Fraser.
“This is not a recipe for efficiency, for doing things better -- this is a recipe for people arguing about procedures for a long time,” he said.
Clark’s new bill will also repeal the previous Liberal government’s 17-year-old Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act to remove “barriers to building much-needed housing in Pickering.”
Green Leader Mike Schreiner, who has been criticizing the Tories for making changes to the Greenbelt, said the changes will lead to “the Wild West when it comes to where and how we build homes in this province.”
“That’s not going to solve the housing affordability crisis. Good planning, building homes where people live right now, where they want to live, close to work -- that’s how we solve the housing affordability crisis.”