As MPPs sat through a long Monday-morning session — which started at 12:01 a.m. and didn’t conclude until nearly 7 a.m. — the Progressive Conservatives repeated the refrain they’ve more or less stuck to since introducing Bill 5 earlier in the summer: Toronto city council’s governance is a matter of provincial interest; council is currently dysfunctional; and reducing the size of city council will lead to a more streamlined, effective government.
We’ll take these arguments in order, but, spoiler alert on that last one — it won’t.
First of all, it’s obviously correct that in a narrow constitutional sense, the province’s responsibility for municipalities includes Toronto. The province has oversight over how Toronto is being run, just as it does over how hospitals and schools boards are being run. It’s also true in a practical sense that — far more than is the case with councils in smaller cities — decisions made at Toronto city council have the potential to reinforce or thwart provincial policy, and no government at Queen’s Park is going to allow things to go badly off the rails.
For example, I argued at the time that Rob Ford’s conduct as mayor was egregious enough that council should have been granted the power to expel him. Premier Kathleen Wynne said she was willing to give council that power if it asked; council didn’t and instead left him nominally in the mayor’s office but without the vast majority of his powers. Council muddled through, but I can’t disagree with the contention that the governance of Toronto city council should not be left solely to councillors.
But acknowledging that Toronto city council could be run better is no validation of the PCs’ claim that their action comes in response to a governance crisis — indeed, the only crisis on our plates is the one that the province itself has caused.
The Scarborough subway? Yes, it has been debated numerous times at city council. Its opponents have never managed to substantively delay the project: the biggest delay has been caused by the subway’s supporters, who, in the face of an increasingly dubious budget of $3.35 billion, have desperately tried to keep the project going by cutting the number of stations from three to one.
Yes, Toronto city council sometimes spends hours debating trivia. That’s what an elected assembly does sometimes, and Queen’s Park isn’t even a little bit immune. In my five years covering the legislature, I’ve seen MPPs waste time debating whether tomatoes should be Ontario’s official vegetable (nobody asked a botanist) and whether the Magna Carta needed its own day for celebration. And who can forget the Liberal government’s urgent priority of banning teens from using tanning beds, a dubious use of the legislature’s time even before it was revealed that it was all about diverting attention from the gas-plants scandal.
A council of 25 will, I’m certain, find at least as many eye-roll-worthy ways to debate trivia as a council of 44 or 47. Work expands to fill the time available, and words expand to fill the debate time they’re given.
If the government is serious about trying to streamline the process at Toronto city council, there are plenty of other options it could have pursued that wouldn’t have involved throwing the basic fairness of an election in Canada’s largest city into doubt. Not too long ago, an independent task force of council-watchers, in conjunction with the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, put together some ideas for doing just that (delegating more issues to community councils, making routine submissions to council electronically and in advance) It dealt just with suggestions that would be explicitly within council’s power to implement — if Queen’s Park decides to take this seriously, the list of potential changes would be much longer.
The Tories have taken to comparing Toronto to various cities in the United States, saying that it has more councillors per person than New York or Los Angeles. This conveniently obscures the fact that many large U.S. cities also have numerous smaller councils and boards that handle local matters. But it also misses the fact that, because of the requirements of provincial law, Toronto city council has to consider many matters that don’t fall solely within the purview of elected municipal councils in U.S. cities.
One way the province (and only the province) could reduce council’s workload relates to zoning approvals. Toronto delegates much of the approving or denying of zoning permissions to community councils, but the final decision on hundreds of site-specific applications must be made through votes at city council, and they make up a huge portion of its workload. The province could instead delegate site-specific zoning issues to a dedicated board and let the city focus on broader planning issues. (Arm’s-length planning commissions play a role in a number of U.S. cities — including ones the Tories claim have more “efficient” councils.)
Following their lead would take hundreds of items off council’s agenda (and also create a bit of political distance between councillors and developers). But neither this nor other possible reforms seem even to have occurred to anyone in the Ford government.
Instead, it’s fixated on a “solution” that won’t work — for a problem that barely exists.
May we have a moment of your time?
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