Four unanswered questions about Doug Ford’s plan to shrink Toronto city council

ANALYSIS: The premier announced Friday that the provincial government wants to cut council in half. There’s a lot we don’t know about his plan, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on July 27, 2018
Premier Doug Ford with Toronto Mayor John Tory
Doug Ford and John Tory are at odds over the provincial government's plan to reduce the size of Toronto city council.

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On Friday morning, Premier Doug Ford blew up municipal elections across the GTHA, announcing that the Tories would introduce a bill next week to cut Toronto city council nearly in half — from 47 seats to 25 — and cancel elections for regional municipal chairs in Muskoka, Niagara, Peel, and York regions.

Ford left many questions unanswered during the press conference at which he announced the coming changes. Some of them won’t be answered until the public sees the actual proposed legislation (presumably next week). Others may not be answered at all. Here are some of the most pressing.

1. Will this actually improve governance at city hall?

To Ford, it’s axiomatic that fewer elected officials will result in streamlined decision-making at the municipal level in Toronto.

“For too long, people in Toronto have watched city council go around and around and around in circles and failed to act on the critical issues facing the city,” he said at Friday’s presser at Queen’s Park. “It will only get worse if Toronto city council grows from 44 to 47 councillors” — the plan that council adopted last year and successfully defended at the Ontario Municipal Board. Ford added, “More politicians is not the answer.”

The premier said John Tory and his predecessors in the mayor’s seat all agreed that a large council was unwieldly. One of those predecessors, David Miller, whom Ford name-checked, said on Twitter that the premier was not telling the truth.

It’s true that city council sometimes takes hours to arrive at decisions that originally seem to be almost preordained. But council also deals with vastly more items in a week-long session than the MPPs at Queen’s Park or the MPs on the Hill handle in the same amount of time, and the majority of those items are dealt with quickly and efficiently.

The decision to put a stop to elections for regional chairs is also curious: the heads of regional council will still exist, will still be paid, and will still have substantial powers — they just won’t be accountable to voters (which was the status quo the Liberals thought was untenable in 2018 and intended to change for this year’s elections).

2. Will it save $25 million, as promised?

Ford says the payroll savings on 22 councillors and their staffs will amount to $25 million over four years. They might have low-balled it: Toronto Star reporter David Rider calculated the savings at closer to $8.4 million annually (or $33.6 million over the course of a four-year council term).

One thing worth considering, though, is that the city councillors who remain will be even more reliant on city staff, and the upshot could be that they simply need to hire more public servants. The Mike Harris government claimed that amalgamation would save money, too — and for a variety of reasons, those savings have never materialized.

3. What about public consultation?

Ford’s government is currently revising the physical- and health-education curriculum because — ostensibly — the prior Liberals did not consult parents enough before making changes. This same government is now ending, without public consultation, already-underway elections to public offices.

The Tories are defending this move on the grounds that they have a mandate to shrink the size of government, despite the fact that the changes announced Friday were never part of the Progressive Conservative platform and that Ford had never discussed them in public until this morning.

4. Will this end up in court?

Under normal circumstances, the changes that Ford is proposing would be recognized as well within the provincial government’s powers. Cities have no rights under the Constitution separate from provincial law, and they get all their powers from laws passed at Queen’s Park.

But what the Tories are planning is not normal: under existing law, nominations for the 2018 municipal elections close Friday at 2 p.m., and the legislature won’t be able to change that law until next week at the earliest (it’ll likely happen later in August). The government is proposing to end elections that are already well underway, and then to reopen them later next month with a new nomination date of September 14. This is certain to create administrative chaos. It will also cause real harm to candidates who’ve already spent time and money on their campaigns.

Even if Toronto city council doesn’t attempt to challenge this move in court, individual candidates may do so. And the government will likely be asked to demonstrate what important public purpose justifies this sort of 11th-hour disruption to municipal affairs.

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