Ontario’s official opposition is urging Toronto’s mayor to withdraw his request for new powers that would allow certain bylaws to pass with just a third of council’s support.
The powers have been laid out in provincial legislation known as Bill 39, or the “Better Municipal Governance Act,” which expands on the strong mayor powers that have already been given to the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa.
The new powers allow the mayors to propose and amend bylaws related to certain provincial authorities without a majority vote. This, the province argued, would allow governments to build housing faster.
In Toronto’s case, a third of council would mean only eight of 25 people would need to vote in the mayor’s favour.
Mayor John Tory confirmed last week that he “raised the change” with Ontario Premier Doug Ford and supports the legislation.
In a public letter addressed to Tory and released late Wednesday night, the New Democratic Party called the legislation an “egregious assault on the democratic rights of the people of Toronto.”
“The people of Toronto just participated in a municipal election to elect 25 city councillors assuming that their votes would be respected,” the letter says. “To now learn that you asked the premier to give you the power to govern the city with the support of only eight councillors – only one-third of councillors – is a deep betrayal of the people’s trust.”
“If we allow this so-called expediency to override democratic processes, then we enter a slippery slope where democratic controls are continuously overridden. Bill 39 and the erosion of accountability and transparency creates a playbook for backroom deals and scandals.”
The NDP then called on the mayor to publicly withdraw his support for the bill.
A similar demand was made during Toronto’s first city council meeting of the new term. City Councillor Josh Matlow urged the mayor to allow the bill to be debated among councillors and to rescind his support.
“I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be the ability to expedite addressing the housing crisis and expediting transit and doing all the things that are priorities, but it should be done through a democracy and minority rule is the antithesis of a democracy,” Matlow argued.
Three other newly-elected councillors, as well as five former Toronto mayors, have also voiced their opposition to these new powers.
In his opening remarks on Wednesday, Tory said that while he is confident he will be able to work with council “to get things done,” he is also committed to getting housing and transit built faster.
“People want this work to get done and I think most people understand that to continue to do things as we have been doing them and to expect a different result is not realistic. I have made no secret about the fact I have fought my last election as a candidate,” he said.
“My fight now is not a political fight – it is a fight against time.”
In September, the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa were also given veto powers, the ability to control the city’s budget, and the capability to hire and fire department heads and appointment chairs for council committees.
On Wednesday Tory promised to only use the veto “on housing and transit matters of citywide importance;” although he did not specify what exactly that would entail. As it stands, a “provincial priority” as defined by the Ontario government includes anything that furthers their pledge to build 1.5 million new homes by 2031, as well as any construction and maintenance of infrastructure that supports housing.
This can include items such as transit, roads and utilities.
“Any such proposed use would always be preceded by a staff report,” Tory told council.
“And I will without exception try first to forge a consensus through the use of the council process.”
Council can still override a decision made by the mayor using these powers, but it requires two-thirds of members to agree.