How would Ontario's plan to change Toronto politics work? An explainer
The Ontario government threw a wrench into some of the province's municipal politics on Friday by announcing a huge reduction to the size of Toronto's city council and the cancellation of elections for certain regional positions. The Canadian Press spoke to analysts about the plan and its implications.
What is the province proposing?
Premier Doug Ford said his Progressive Conservative government will introduce legislation to cut the number of seats on Toronto city council from 47 to 25, aligning city wards with federal and provincial ridings.
The move comes after the city wrapped a years-long consultation assessing ward boundaries. In a bid to even out the number of constituents each councillor would represent, the city opted to increase the number of wards from 44 to 47. Ford's decision would undo that work and adopt a position that was considered but rejected.
Ford also announced he would be cancelling elections for regional chair positions in York, Peel, Niagara and Muskoka regions, while allowing others to proceed.
What becomes of the Toronto municipal race and candidates who've already registered?
The deadline to register as a candidate in the Toronto election was set to expire hours after Ford's announcement, but the government is extending that to Sept. 16. The election will go ahead as planned on Oct. 22. Details of how existing candidates will be redistributed among the pared down wards remain to be seen, and analysts predict confusion as the process unfolds.
Are there legal channels or existing municipal rules that would allow critics to challenge the province's plan?
Yes, though it wouldn't be easy.
Alexandra Flynn, a lawyer and former policy consultant in the office of Toronto's city manager, said Ontario is fully entitled to implement its plan since Canada's constitution enshrines the province's right to make changes to municipal affairs. That right was reinforced in a 1997 court decision when the provincial government then led by Mike Harris amalgamated six municipalities in and around Toronto to create the city as it is now.
Since then, however, Flynn said Ontario has enacted a piece of legislation called the City of Toronto Act that recognizes local government as a democratic institution that must be consulted when major decisions are made. The act also enshrines the city's right to make decisions about its ward boundaries. Case law elsewhere in the country could also form the foundation for a court challenge based on concerns around proper representation, Flynn said. A court challenge alone, however, would not halt Ford's plans.
"There would have to be an injunction brought ... to stop the provincial legislation from applying," Flynn said, adding a court challenge would be most effective if mounted by the City of Toronto itself. Mayor John Tory gave no indication that he planned to proceed that way. He criticized Ford's plan and said he'd call for a referendum. Such a move, observers say, wouldn't do much to alter the province's plans.
Are there benefits to a smaller or a larger city council?
Not according to scholars researching the field, though Ford disagrees. He's positioning his plan as one that would boost the efficiency of Toronto council while saving $25 million.
But Gabriel Eidelman, director of the Urban Policy Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said the size of council doesn't have much to do with its performance.
He shares a widely held view that city hall meetings in Toronto could be run more effectively, but said simple procedural changes and better delegation of tasks could accomplish the same ends without resorting to drastic provincial intervention.
Researchers have not identified a best approach to run a city, he said. Municipalities vary widely in how they conduct their affairs, making it easier for proponents of any given approach to "cherry-pick" examples to suit their narrative, he said. In Montreal, for example, more than 60 councillors run the city under a party system. In Vancouver, 10 councillors and a mayor oversee the city at large without running in specific wards. Eidelman said there may be value in reforming aspects of municipal affairs, but decried Ford's approach.
"This kind of announcement isn't based on careful study," he said of the premier who served a term on Toronto city council. "It's based on his own perceptions of what is working and what isn't working, and his own perceptions of what the effects will be."
How would a smaller council benefit Ford?
No one seems sure. Zack Taylor, assistant professor of political science at Western University, doesn't see any long-term advantage in the move. He questioned its value as a savings measure, saying $25 million is a "spec of dust." What the plan does do, however, is burnish Ford's credentials as a decisive leader taking action to deliver on his promises.
Ford has railed against the size of city council for years, Taylor said, adding that while the premier never alluded to his plan during the spring election campaign, he explicitly vowed to take on city politics in the 2016 book "Ford Nation," which he co-wrote with his late brother and former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.
The latest move, Taylor said, shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Ford brand and will play well with his base.
Will a smaller city council mean less representation for constituents?
Taylor said a smaller number of councillors could likely continue to fulfil their duties to residents if budgets and office staff were increased to help field the heavier workload.
If the objective is to eliminate those costs, however, he says constituents may be right to worry. The ward boundary review aimed to see the average number of constituents each councillor represented evened out at approximately 60,000 — a figure Flynn and Eidelman said is roughly in line with other major Canadian cities. Taylor said the new approach would see that figure nearly double.
"What you're going to end up with now is perhaps a more decisive decision-making body because it will have fewer people sitting around the table, but the councillors that remain will have a lot more work to do and not necessarily more resources to do it," he said. "That's going to undermine democratic responsiveness."