Toronto

Province, city back to court over Ford government's 'unprecedented' mid-election council cuts

Premier Doug Ford's government and the city of Toronto are facing off again in court over the province's bill to slash the number of city council seats — a controversial surprise move in the middle of the 2018 municipal election.

CBC News will have cameras in the courtroom for hearing starting on Monday

Premier Doug Ford's government and the city of Toronto are facing off again in court over the province's 2018 bill to slash the number of council seats, a surprise move causing what the city has called "unprecedented disruption" in the middle of an election. (CBC News)

Premier Doug Ford's government and the city of Toronto are facing off again in court over the province's 2018 bill to slash the number of council seats — a surprise move causing what the city has called "unprecedented disruption" in the middle of an election.

On Monday and Tuesday, Ontario's Court of Appeal is hearing an appeal from the province for a second time. During both days of hearings, CBC News has been granted permission to have cameras in the courtroom.

The appeal follows a panel of judges' decision to stay a lower court's ruling on Bill 5 last September — which led to the city holding a 25-ward election after months of flip-flopping and frantic preparation. 

"I certainly am hopeful that the city is successful... it's important to take this challenge on because the province's meddling in our local election was the first of many attacks on our local democracy," said Toronto Coun. Josh Matlow, a vocal critic of the Ford government.

Based on legal advice the city has received, Mayor John Tory is less optimistic. "The odds are stacked against us," he said on Friday.

But Tory said he's hoping, at the very least, for the judges to call for some limits to the "unilateral authority" of the province, which allowed the Ford government to intervene amid an in-process municipal election campaign.

Last July, Ford first announced his surprise decision to chop the number of wards from a planned 47-ward system to 25 seats aligned with provincial ridings.

While the premier defended the move as necessary to fix a "bloated and inefficient" council, it shocked councillors, candidates, and residents alike — and prompted both protests and court challenges.

'Unprecedented disruption' to candidates, voters

According to the city's latest factum to the Court of Appeal, this case is all about what makes a "democratic" election.

The documents cite the lengthy process Toronto went through to settle on a planned 47-ward system: An extensive review launched in 2013, followed by approvals from both the Ontario Municipal Board in 2017 and the divisional court a year later.

When Bill 5 came into force in 2018, the city's election was "past the halfway mark," it notes, which caused "unprecedented disruption" to candidates, voters, and the city. 

Following a legal challenge at the superior court level, Justice Edward Belobaba sided with the city — deeming the province's legislation unconstitutional, saying it violated the freedom of expression rights for candidates and voters.

"The Province has clearly crossed the line," Belobaba concluded in his scathing decision last September. 

Last July, Premier Doug Ford first announced his surprise decision to chop the size of Toronto's city council from a planned 47-ward system in favour of 25 seats to align with provincial ridings. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Then, after the city frantically began planning to return to a 47-ward election, Ford announced a plan to use a bold, rarely-invoked constitutional provision known as the "notwithstanding clause" to override Belobaba's ruling.

It never came to that. The Court of Appeal stayed the decision, but the election still wound up mired in controversy.

Prior to voters heading to the polls, city clerk Ulli Watkiss told council the uncertainty was making it "virtually impossible" to hold a fair vote.

Dozens of candidates — including many new faces — who'd aspired to run under a larger ward system also found themselves suddenly up against one or more incumbents, dramatically reducing their chance of success.

"I really felt betrayed by the system," Chris Moise, a current Toronto school board trustee and former downtown council candidate, told CBC Toronto on Friday.

Moise, who planned to run in an open seat in the 47-ward system, joined the legal fight against the cuts and later opted not to run in the eventual 25-ward system against incumbent Kristyn Wong-Tam.

Chris Moise, who was planning a run for a seat in Toronto's new ward 25, reacts to the Bill 5 decision. 0:44

But before backing away from a run, he said he raised and spent roughly $20,000 and sold his mortgage-free Cabbagetown home to buy a condo directly in the ward he hoped to win.

"Am I bitter? Yes," Moise said. "And it will take me some time to get over this."

In multiple races, familiar faces also wound up running against one another in bitter battles over much-larger wards.

Since then, the successful councillors have voted to boost their staffing and office budgets, citing the need for more resources to handle the demands of larger populations under their purview.

Province maintains changes did not infringe freedom of expression

Despite the controversy, the province has maintained it had every right to dictate the size of Toronto's council, stressing that municipalities are merely creatures of the legislature.

In its latest factum to the Court of Appeal, the Ministry of the Attorney General argues that while the larger wards may have meant more work for candidates hoping to win, "this does not infringe freedom of expression."

"The ratio of constituents to councillors is now equal to that at the federal and provincial levels... There is nothing unique in municipalities to require a lower constituent to councillor ratio for constitutional or municipal governance purposes," the factum reads.

In a statement, Jesse Robichaud, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General said, "All of the respondents have consented to Ontario's request that the Court of Appeal overturn Justice Belobaba's decision except the City of Toronto, which continues to use taxpayer resources to argue for a larger, more expensive city council."

Now, as both the Ford government and its challengers are gearing up for another fight in court, Moise said he doesn't picture the legal system ruling in favour of the city at this stage. 

But that doesn't mean he believes the province had any right to intervene in the city's affairs.

"With Bill 5, they pulled the carpet from under us," he said, adding, "This government has done a disservice to this city."

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

City Hall reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter in Toronto covering city hall and municipal affairs. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca

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