'No Goldilocks number' in determining best size of city council

Trying to determine the number of city councillors that would make local governance the most efficient is certainly not an exact science, as defining what makes council effective can be a subjective term, some experts say.

Ontario premier says Toronto's council has become dysfunctional, inefficient

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he will significantly reduce the number of Toronto city councillors just months before the fall municipal election. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Trying to determine the number of city councillors that would make local governance the most efficient is certainly not an exact science, some experts say, as defining what makes council effective can be subjective.

"There is no Goldilocks number," said Gabriel Eidelman, director of the Urban Policy Lab at University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

"We don't really have good answers in the academic research that says this is the number you should be shooting for, [that] 60,000 is the magic number of how many constituents an individual councillor should represent and anything less than that is an affront to democracy."

The reason, says Eidelman, is there's very little research about this issue or research that has set out a defining set of principles or criteria.

"How would you judge what is more or less democratic or more or less effective… or more or less efficient? And then actually take the number and look at an institutional structure and say 'OK, if you have this number, or this structure it will lead to better decisions.'"

On Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced he would introduce legislation to cut the size of Toronto city council almost in half, from 47 councillors to 25. Ford argued that the council has become dysfunctional and inefficient because of its size.

Ford argued that the 47-member council has become dysfunctional and inefficient because of its size. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Eidelman, who said he will be holding a symposium on this very topic later this year, said that, empirically, there are no grounds to say whether Ford is wrong or right.

"You can make the argument, sure cut the number of talking heads on the council floor in half but increase the resources for their office and then you have more responsiveness and service delivery to your constituents."

In his 2017 report,  The Potential and Consequences of Municipal and Electoral Reform, associate political science professor Aaron Moore said research indicated that expanding the size of council "may lead to better representation of certain marginalized communities and encourage greater voter turnout and engagement come election time."

However, a larger council may also pose "significant drawbacks," he wrote. Large councils tend to spend much more per capita than municipalities with small councils and lead to greater levels of "pork barrel" spending.

As well, a large number of councillors makes it more difficult for the media and residents to hold them accountable, as most of the focus is usually on the mayor.

But Moore told CBC News that there are valid concerns that, the smaller council becomes, "the less representative it's going to be."

'Goes out the window'

And when ward sizes get too large, "the whole notion of local democracy at that point kind of goes out the window," he said.

However,  Andrew Sancton,  a retired Western University political science professor and former director of its Local Government Program, said councillors too often get involved in issues that would be better left to city administration officials. 

Sancton, who has argued in favour of cutting Toronto's city council to 25 members, said when it comes to issues like fixing potholes, garbage collection, or what shape the local park is in, "there's no reason why you have to call your councillor about these concerns."

Councillors should instead be focused on city planning, transit projects and broader issues, he said.

He said it can be difficult to define "effective" when there are competing stakeholders.

One may base effectiveness on how long it takes for council to approve development applications, for example. That might be a great measure for a developer who wants applications approved quickly, he said.

But if the measure is based on the amount of debate on the development, the amount of citizen engagement, "you're going to have an entirely different definition of effectiveness."

As for council size, Sancton said it should be somewhere between seven and 25 members.

"It's sort of the amount of people you can get around the table who can have a discussion among themselves and work things out by looking at each other by listening to each other."

L.A. has 15 councillors

In defending his move to cut council, Ford referred to Los Angeles, a city with four million people, that has only 15 city councillors. However the city does have 97 neighbourhood councils. 

Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, said the city's number of councillors has remained the same since the mid-1920s, And because of council's small size, L.A. possibly has the strongest city council in the U.S.

But Sonenshein, who is the author of three books on Los Angeles politics and government, doubted the size of the council determines whether the city runs better.

Los Angeles, with its population of four million, has 15 city councillors. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

"I think the biggest question that's always been raised about the L.A. council is are the districts too large to be as representative and responsive as they need to be," he said.

"I don't think it's a badly run city. I don't know that it's not badly run because of the size of the council."

While people may complain that the districts are too large, voters, in the past, have nixed the idea of hiring more politicians, Sonenshein said.

About the Author

Mark Gollom


Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.