How a Toronto city charter could fend off 'political interference' by Queen's Park

Some prominent Torontonians say it’s time for the city to take control of its future by establishing Ontario’s first city charter, a proposal that would allow Toronto to make decisions without provincial approval.

Proposal comes after city, province battle over council cuts, subway control

Proponents of a city charter say it will make Toronto more efficient and accountable to residents. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

It's time for Toronto to take control of its future by establishing Ontario's first city charter, some prominent city political leaders say.

They've put forward a written proposal that would allow Toronto to make decisions without the need for provincial approval, including in the areas of housing, education and transit.

A number of large Canadian cities — including Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver —  already have similar charters.

"The city has to go to the provincial government for approval for all sorts of things," said former mayor John Sewell, a member of Charter City Toronto, the group that released the proposal Tuesday morning.

"That seems to me a real wasted effort. There's no reason to think that the province is any smarter than the city in making decisions about those kinds of issues."

Former mayors Barbara Hall and David Miller, former premier Bob Rae and Richard Peddie, the former president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, are also among those backing the proposal.

No rules are fireproof, but the ones we propose would afford solid protection for the city.- Charter City Toronto's written proposal

The push for a charter comes at a time of heightened animosity between Toronto and the Ontario government.

Last year, the Progressive Conservatives slashed the size of city council in the midst of municipal elections, leading many to condemn the province for meddling in city affairs. The two governments have also wrestled over the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), with the province recently backing off a plan to upload the subway system to provincial control.

Charter City Toronto acknowledged it does not expect to negotiate a new agreement with Doug Ford's government in the immediate future, but that isn't stopping it from taking the idea to the public.

Under the proposed charter, Ontario would no longer have the ability to override Toronto on such issues. The city would also be exempt from seeking provincial approval on a wide variety of municipal files.

"No rules are fireproof, but the ones we propose would afford solid protection for the city," the written proposal reads.

"A more even playing field will help return Toronto and Ontario to a relationship of co-operation and partnership."

John Sewell is one of several former mayors backing the proposed city charter. (CBC)

The plan would ultimately need to be accepted by the province. Charter City Toronto is also calling for a constitutional amendment that would preserve the charter in perpetuity.

An amendment would theoretically prevent Ontario from later cancelling the charter, which Alberta's United Conservative Party plans to do with the charters in Calgary and Edmonton.

Toronto Mayor John Tory has said he supports continued dialogue and development of the charter concept, though Tory has not not explicitly endorsed the idea.

Account for Toronto's 'unique needs'

The group argues the existing relationship between Toronto and Queen's Park is based on an imbalanced model that does not properly consider the massive and diverse needs of a modern city.

Adopting a charter would allow Toronto to operate "without fear of provincial interference" and speed up decision-making that could directly benefit residents, according to the proposal.

"The city of Toronto has unique needs and it needs unique solutions," said Doug Earl, a member of Charter City Toronto's steering committee.

As an example, Earl cited a proposal to improve road safety by hiring traffic wardens. He said the city has been forced to use off-duty police officers to perform that job since creating a new position would require Ontario's approval.

"What is the provincial interest in who directs traffic on the streets of Toronto?" Earl asked.

Sewell pointed to property tax assessments as another area where the Toronto could make fairer and more effective decisions. Some businesses have complained that inflated assessments have made it increasingly difficult to operate.

The charter would give Toronto the excuslive right to make decisions on transit, education and housing. (John Rieti/CBC)

"If the city was in control of the property tax system, we could actually try and resolve that, instead of saying to the province, 'Oh, please, couldn't you do something?'" Sewell said.

One expert says Toronto could build from the experience of other Canadian cities.

Andy Yan, director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said Vancouver's charter, for example, has been largely beneficial to local decision making, especially concerning land use and transit planning.

He said Toronto could improve on Vancouver's charter by including more flexible language and rules to account for unforeseen issues.

"You want a document that is organic, if you will, and able to change with the demands of the city."

The City of Toronto Act

It does not appear the Ford government is willing to entertain the idea.

In a statement to CBC Toronto, the office of Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark pointed to recent investments designed to help municipalities operate more efficiently.

"The government is committed to working with our municipal partners to improve services that Ontarians rely on, while continuing to protect what matters most," wrote spokesperson Julie O'Driscoll.

She also pointed to the City of Toronto Act, which was created in 2006, and affords Toronto some powers over bylaws and taxation that are unique in Ontario.

"We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with all municipalities, including the City of Toronto, to find savings, strengthen front-line services and protect what matters most," O'Driscoll continued.

Charter City Toronto, meanwhile, said its next steps will be to launch a series of public consultations with the goal of fine-tuning its proposal.


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