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How will John Tory’s ‘strong mayor’ powers work and what will they mean for Toronto?

Many U.S. mayors enjoy veto power, but allowing measures to be passed with one-third support is unheard of.
Nov. 22, 2022
Ben Spurr

When Toronto City Council convenes on Wednesday for the first meeting of its new term, the man in the mayor’s chair will be the same, but the power he wields will have grown significantly.

As he begins his third term, Mayor John Tory’s office has been supercharged by controversial “strong-mayor” legislation introduced by Premier Doug Ford.

The result is “the ability of the mayor to just act unilaterally or near unilaterally” on some issues, said Zachary Taylor, an associate professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario.

“There’s just no precedent for anything like this.”

How the mayor uses his new powers could have a profound effect on how city hall operates for the next four years. Here’s a breakdown of the tools now at Tory’s disposal and what they could mean for Toronto.

What are the mayor’s new powers?

In surprise legislation introduced last week, the Ontario PC government significantly lowered the bar for the mayor to get measures passed at city council.

The new law, Bill 39, says if the mayor is “of the opinion” a bylaw would advance a priority set out by the province, it can be passed “if more than one-third of the members of city council vote in favour.” That means instead of needing a majority, Tory will have to secure the votes of just eight other members on the 26-seat council to get certain measures approved.

The one-third provision has been criticized by council members and city hall watchers as undemocratic. In an open letter to Tory on Sunday, five former Toronto mayors called it an “attack” on the concept of majority rule, “one of the essential tenets of our local democracy and a fundamental democratic mechanism.” They urged Tory to reject Bill 39.

The one-third rule is in addition legislation the province announced in July that allows the mayor to veto a bylaw passed by council if he believes it would interfere with a provincial priority. That legislation, Bill 3, also granted the mayor the ability to table the annual budget and appoint senior city officials.

The new powers initially apply to the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa, but the province plans to extend them to other municipalities.

How will “provincial priorities” be defined?

The mayor can only use the most significant of his new powers -- the veto and one-third approval -- to advance provincial goals, which the Ontario government will define in written regulations.

The province could add or delete priorities as it sees fit, but the Ontario PC government has said the initial list will include its target of building 1.5 million residential units in the province by 2031, as well as the construction of transit, roads and utilities to support new homes.

Conrad Spezowka, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said the province will monitor how the mayor uses the one-third provision and, if necessary, will step in “to set limits and conditions, or to clarify” when it can be employed.

Why did the province grant the mayor more power?

The Ontario PCs say a more muscular mayor’s office will help “get more homes built faster,” which is critical to increasing housing supply and taming soaring prices. The idea is that councillors sometimes oppose more housing in their wards and now the mayor can overrule them.

Tory says he was the one who suggested the one-third provision because he believed the province’s original strong-mayor legislation didn’t go far enough. It limited him to vetoing council decisions instead of allowing him to push through his own measures.

Some question the Ontario government’s rationale, arguing that the province already has the ability to set housing policy in Ontario’s cities without the mayor.

“This legislation has nothing to do with solving the housing affordability crisis or building homes for real people,” Ontario NDP municipal affairs critic Jeff Burch (Niagara Centre) said in a statement last week.

Because they reduce council’s input and must be used to further provincial aims, the changes “will bulldoze local decision-making so Doug Ford can wield more power,” the opposition alleges.

How might Tory use his new powers?

The mayor has asked the public to trust him not to abuse his new authority and pledged he will only employ the powers in “very limited” circumstances when efforts at collaboration fail.

Tory has rarely lost a council vote, but said he might need the one-third provision to overcome objections from councillors who normally side with him but oppose certain housing measures. He’s cited the proposed expansion of rooming house regulations, which he supported last fall but decided not to put to a vote because it didn’t have enough council support to pass.

The mayor said he would feel comfortable using the new powers on such issues because he campaigned in the Oct. 24 election on increasing housing options and “I have a very clear mandate from people to move forward.”

By contrast, Mark Sutcliffe, the newly elected mayor of Ottawa, has vowed not to use the enhanced powers to quash councillors’ objections. In a statement last week, he said “the new city council is ready to work together” to get housing built.

Do mayors elsewhere have these powers?

No. While many U.S. cities have “strong mayor” systems, making a mayor’s power conditional on advancing another level of government’s goals, as Ontario has done, is not the norm. And although many U.S. mayors enjoy veto power, allowing measures to be passed with one-third support is unheard of.

“That really takes us in a new direction. Even strong mayors in American systems don’t have anything like this at their disposal,” said Taylor.