The Ontario premier's cautious offer to intervene in Toronto's chaotic affairs may be an undemocratic risky gambit or a promising move, depending on who you ask.
Reaction from political experts was mixed after Premier Kathleen Wynne laid out her rules Thursday for the province to intervene in Toronto's ongoing saga involving Mayor Rob Ford.
The embattled mayor has been making headlines all over the world after admitting to smoking crack cocaine, buying illegal drugs in the past two years in office and drinking and driving.
Current provincial laws only allow the province to remove a mayor if he or she has been found guilty of a crime.
On Thursday, Wynne seemed to be suggesting she would be willing to amend those laws, to provide city council "with new tools," if it requested the province's help and if the other provincial parties were in agreement.
On Friday, however, Toronto councillors passed several motions stripping Ford of some of his powers.
In statements midday Friday, Wynne said it appeared that council decisions made in the morning demonstrated that it is "determined to find a way to make city council work.
"I believe the decisions made this morning are evidence that the council is working and can operate," she said in French.
She also said, in response to a reporter noting that Toronto councillors have been urging the mayor to step down: "He needs to pay close attention to what he’s being advised by the councillors and the people around him."
That latest development didn't stop political experts from mulling the possibility that provincial action could still occur.
Constitutional expert Bruce Ryder, at York University's Osgoode Law School, said the premier’s indication she’d be open to introducing amendments to municipal legislation, if asked, is "promising" and could bring about "useful" changes.
Among the changes he recommends is giving citizens the ability to initiate recall elections by starting a petition or by some kind of super-majority vote of the council. (Recall legislation exists at the provincial level in B.C., but it requires proponents to submit the signatures of 40 per cent of eligible voters in a given riding, a significant hurdle, to move forward.)
Other constitutional experts, however, say provincial intervention in this case is not without risk.
"It could backfire in a big way," cautioned Dennis Pilon, a York University political scientist.
That said, Pilon acknowledged that any action by Wynne's Liberal government could also prove very popular if removal of the mayor gains widespread public and city council support.
On Thursday, Wynne set out the parameters for an Ontario intervention in Toronto's municipal affairs, saying she'd need clear indication from council that they lack the ability to function plus a request from council.
Even then, the premier would consult with other party leaders to seek support for stepping in.
Ontario’s Progressive Conservative opposition, the party that Rob Ford's late father, Doug Ford, represented in the legislature in the 1990s, was mum on Wynne’s initial statement. But NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the municipal level of government must be "treated with respect."
Wynne's added condition requiring all-party support reduces the pressure on her to act, suggested Pilon.
"She's trying to extend the cost of acting to other actors. She wants them to buy in," he said. "She’s gambling that public opinion at some point will force someone to act, and if it’s her, it won’t be able to be used against her."
Evidence council can operate
The chance of provincial intervention seemed to diminish further on Friday after city council took away Ford's powers during emergency situations as well as his ability to hire or fire the deputy mayor and appoint executive committee members.
"My sense is that councillors actually felt more comfortable taking steps where they, themselves, could reduce the mayor’s power," said Ron Kanter, a municipal lawyer and former city councillor. 'This may eliminate the need for provincial action.'
University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman suggested that the premier would likely need a very high majority of councillors, perhaps even as high as 40 out of 44, calling for the province's help before it would step in.
"I have always thought [provincial intervention] was highly unlikely unless you had, perhaps the overwhelming majority of council members pleading for it in a petition," he said.
Legal changes slow
Municipalities fall under the province's constitutional authority, giving Ontario the ability to dictate how they function and are administered.
The 'new tools" Wynne referred to would likely involve new legislation or amendments to current laws, such as the City of Toronto Act, which outlines the municipality’s powers.
Many political experts don't seem to support the province directly meddling in city affairs, but they do think the province could play a role in changing the rules to improve city politics overall.
"If the province wants to intervene, then it should intervene at the level of the governance model and say, 'That four-year term is looking like a bad idea now. Let’s go back to three-year terms'," suggested Pilon.
However, introducing new laws or amendments can take time, particularly in a minority government situation as is the case in Ontario.
And by the time any changes get made, that could be well "after the horse [has] left the barn,"Wiseman says.
It may be that Torontonians will have to wait until Oct. 27, 2014 — the fixed date for municipal elections in Ontario — for any reckoning to happen.
"Rob Ford is the kind of political phenomena that the best put down will come from the voters," said Pilon. "The only thing that will have any impact on him and his supporters is a serious dressing down by the public themselves."