Toronto council votes to challenge Doug Ford's council-slashing bill in court

Toronto city council has voted to mount a legal challenge against the Ontario government's Bill 5, which cuts the size of council by nearly half.

Mayor John Tory supports court challenge, calls it 'right and responsible thing to do'

Toronto city hall's council chamber was packed for Monday's special debate about what to do about the province's plan to reduce the number of wards from 47 to 25 ahead of the upcoming fall election. (Lauren Pelley/CBC)

Toronto City Council voted 27-15 on Monday to legally challenge the Ontario government's bill that slashes the number of councillors by nearly half.

Mayor John Tory supported the court challenge, and called the province's decision to cut Toronto city council's ranks "wrong and unacceptable."

"Challenging this legislation and the process used to introduce it is the right and responsible thing to do," Tory said in a statement Monday evening.

Council also voted 25-17 to exhaust all legal avenues to challenge the Progressive Conservative government's legislation, including appealing any rulings. A majority also voted to seek to postpone the upcoming municipal election if a delay becomes necessary in order to carry out the legal challenge. 

Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act, cuts the number of ward boundaries from 47 to 25 ahead of the Oct. 22 municipal election, aligning Toronto's ward map with federal ridings.

The bill also cancels planned elections for the head of council position in the regional municipalities of Muskoka, Peel, York and Niagara. The head of council in each region will instead be appointed.

Premier Doug Ford, a former city councillor who also ran for mayor against Tory, has said the shakeup will make city hall more efficient. Legal experts say the provincial government has the constitutional right to determine the size of city councils in Ontario.

Hearing on Aug. 31

City hall's council chamber was packed earlier Monday for the special meeting. The city's legal team filed a confidential report to councillors with advice on a potential court challenge that was debated behind closed doors.

Monday's vote occurred nearly nine hours after the meeting began, with councillors making their final arguments following closed-door sessions. 

The city will take part in a Superior Court hearing on Aug. 31, a spokesperson said.

Mayor John Tory voted to support a legal challenge against Bill 5. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Coun. Josh Matlow put forward the motion supporting the legal challenge.

"We took a stand for local democracy today," said Matlow after the vote. Whatever happens in court will set a precedent for the city's ability to govern its own affairs, he added. "It's just fundamentally wrong for our local democracy to pull the rug from under the people's feet in the middle of an election." 

Coun. Stephen Holyday put forward a motion to take no action against Bill 5. Holyday said he is concerned about making another change so close to the Oct. 22 vote and potentially hampering the election process.

Thanks to its majority at Queen's Park, the PCs had little trouble passing the bill last week — less than 90 days before the fall election. However, Tory has repeatedly criticized what he calls an unacceptable process that didn't include any input from the city or its residents. 

Premier Doug Ford, himself a former council member who also ran for mayor, told municipal leaders from across Ontario, 'I have never ever had more positive feedback than what we did at the city of Toronto.' (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

In a statement Monday, a spokesperson for the premier said "it's disappointing that the politicians down at City Hall were more interested in protecting their own jobs than standing up for the safety of their own constituents."

The provincial government "will be moving forward with the implementation of the Better Local Government Act, and we look forward to delivering more effective and accountable government to the people across this great province," the statement continued. 

Fresh nomination period underway

Bill 5 disrupted a nomination period for Toronto city council seats that had been underway since May and had been slated to close on July 27. Nominations for mayor did close, as planned, on that day.

The city has opted to start a fresh nomination process that closes in September.

Meanwhile, city staff said Monday they have been working around the clock to accommodate the 25-ward system. They estimate the switch will cost an additional $2.5 million beyond the approved election budget of $14.9 million due to the "magnitude, size and complexity." 

But city clerk Ulli Watkiss warned a successful legal challenge — which could be subject to further appeals — would make it risky to go back to 47 councillors for the fall vote. 

Coun. Josh Matlow put forward the motion supporting the legal challenge, which Toronto council passed on Monday. (CBC)

On Monday morning, Ford told Ontario municipal leaders at an annual conference he has no plans to table any more legislation that would affect the size of city councils elsewhere, as the issues are unique to Toronto. 

"The feedback we are getting from the people on this move has been overwhelmingly positive," he said during a speech to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario in Ottawa. 

Tory has called the province's move unprecedented.

"It is our duty to represent the people of Toronto and the best interests of this city at all times — and to make our position clear when we do not believe the actions of other levels of government are in our city's best interests," Tory said.

City's lawyer lays out city's legal options

On Monday, Toronto-based law firm Goldblatt Partners announced another court challenge to the council cuts. Several plaintiffs, including a city council candidate, have filed an application with the Superior Court of Justice challenging Bill 5.

There was already a legal challenge in the works prior to Monday's council decision, involving Rocco Achampong, a candidate in Ward 13. 

John Mascarin, a municipal lawyer with the Toronto-based firm Aird and Berlis, said constitutionally there is precedent supporting the province's power to change the size of a municipal government. 

John Mascarin, a Toronto lawyer and municipal law expert, says the city could mount an election fairness argument and cite a lack of effective representation for the local government. (CBC)

Twenty years ago, the provincial government of the day decided to amalgamate the former municipality of metropolitan Toronto with six other municipalities to create the City of Toronto and "there was a huge cry" about the move not being democratic, Mascarin said. 

"But the province still went ahead and did it," he added.

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With files from Philip Lee-Shanok, Amara McLaughlin, Laura Howells, Lauren Pelley, Canadian Press