Analysis

Will Doug Ford's plan to shrink city council get more stuff done? Don't bet on it

Premier Doug Ford says slashing Toronto city council will shorten debates and get more stuff done. Is he right? CBC Toronto's new municipal affairs analyst Matt Elliott says less debate doesn't necessarily mean more productivity.

The premier is pushing to slash the number of Toronto city councillors from 44 to 25

Premier Doug Ford says slashing Toronto city council almost in half will lead to shorter debates and more business getting done. But CBC Toronto municipal affairs analyst Matt Elliott says the city's problems have nothing to do with the number of councillors. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

Responding to a question at Queen's Park on Thursday from NDP MPP Marit Stiles about his move to reduce the number of Toronto councillors, Premier Doug Ford pointed to frustrating memories from his own time serving as a city councillor between 2010 and 2014.

He recalled how he had to sit through "10 hours of debate about one issue, about getting Mrs. Jones's cat out of the tree, and then they all vote together. I've been down there for years watching how dysfunctional this government is. People of Toronto want to streamline it."

First, a fact check: Toronto council has never in its recorded history had a debate about whether to get a cat out of a tree.

But cat rescue aside, the word "streamline" has come up a lot in Ford's push to reduce the number of city councillors set to be elected this fall and it's worth examining.

Would having fewer city councillors actually streamline things? Would more stuff get done?

Shorter meetings vs. getting stuff done

When talking about streamlining, it's important to draw a distinction between efficiencies that lead to shorter council meetings and efficiencies that lead to more stuff getting done faster.

Ford's smaller council with just 25 councillors – down from 44 today — will almost certainly achieve the former. With fewer politicians signing up to speak on items, agendas should complete somewhat sooner. And reducing the number of egos in the council chamber should result in fewer embarrassing outbursts posted on YouTube.

But on the latter — the matter of getting stuff done — it's worth considering that council speeches are not the root cause of the city's more persistent challenges when it comes to things like getting transit built.

Right now, there are 44 seats on Toronto city council. The premier's plan would see one councillor for each of the city's 25 federal-provincial ridings, instead of two. (John Rieti/CBC)

The city's much-needed relief line subway, for example, is not more than a decade away from its projected opening date because too many city councillors have insisted on giving too many speeches.

It's been pushed back because city council has made decisions that have prioritized other transit projects and limited the funds available for transit planning and construction.

It's not a lack of decision-making that caused the project to languish in limbo for years. Council chose that.

A look at the record

In fact, a close look at council's record on major items over the last decade shows no real pattern of indecision or partisan gridlock.

Even on contentious issues like the Scarborough subway extension, council has been consistent in its votes to support the project. The debates on the matter can be long and repetitive, but the results have been consistently in favour of moving forward. It has never been delayed by a vote of council.

And for all the talk since Ford's announcement about how councillors are unable to get things done, Toronto council has managed to come together to support a number of major items over the last four years, including expressway tolls (though later overturned), the Bloor Street bike lanes, the hybrid plan for the Gardiner Expressway, the King Street pilot and Mayor John Tory's SmartTrack transit plan.

None of this is to suggest that Toronto's municipal government is running like a well-oiled machine. There are challenges the mayor and councillors struggle with constantly, and often these challenges do result in delays.

But those challenges are not driven by council dysfunction, but instead relate to more deep-seated issues like reliable funding, municipal autonomy, a suburbs-versus-downtown political dynamic and the politicization of transit planning.

These are not things you are likely to fix with an axe, though the premier seems determined to try.

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