Are US-style ‘strong mayors’ right for Ontario?

When Ken Greenberg was Boston’s acting chief of planning, “the fifth floor” was shorthand for the office of then-Mayor Tom Menino, who appointed him personally. City councilors, let alone citizens, rarely entered the space.

“That’s where all the power was held and all the decisions were made,” said Greenberg, an urban designer who previously worked for several American cities with so-called strong-mayor systems, as well as the city of Toronto. “Fortunately, most people, including myself, thought [Menino] He did a good job. But invariably, sooner or later, you have mayors who have crazy ideas and there’s really no countervailing force.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has long touted the benefits of strong, American-style mayors presiding over local governments after his days working for his family’s multimillion-dollar label company in Chicago, where he admired the influence of the then Mayor Richard Daley.

Last week, the Ford government presented the Strong Mayors, Housing Construction Law which, if passed, will greatly increase the power of the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa. On Monday, Ford went further, telling the Ontario Association of Municipalities that he also plans to expand the powers of mayors in other municipalities.

Ford and his housing minister, Steve Clark, have argued that the mayors’ expanded powers will reduce bottlenecks in development processes and allow more homes to be built in a province with a serious and worsening affordable housing crisis.

“Ontario is supporting efficient local decision-making to help cut red tape and speed up development timelines,” a government statement said.

Under the new legislation, mayors could veto council-approved bylaws and budgets on matters related to “provincial priorities,” propose the local budget, appoint senior staff, committee and board chairs, and mandate items for councils to review. consider, among other powers. A mayoral veto can only be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote of the council.

Ford, who was re-elected in June, did not mention the plan during his month-long campaign for a second term.

However, the US cities that Ford is apparently emulating function very differently from those in Ontario, Greenberg and other experts said. US municipalities, for example, have more power to tax residents to fund priorities.

Local politicians in the US are often loyal to one party (Republican or Democrat), and “strong” mayors typically appoint high-level staff to serve during their term, while in Canada, those public officials tend to be apolitical and remain in their posts longer. the course of multiple governments.

Metropolitan University of Toronto professor emeritus Myer Siemiatycki said the government’s push for strong mayors is about shifting the blame for the housing crisis onto municipalities, rather than solving it. #DougFord #ONpoli

“It really worries me that we are throwing the baby out with the bath water, that instead of having a system made in Ontario for Ontario, that takes into account our political culture, there is no doubt that reform would be good for our system to work. better, but the idea of ​​removing all the checks and balances, especially the contact of citizens with their municipal government, that is really what is sacrificed,” said Greenberg.

Karen Chapple, director of the University of Toronto School of Cities, said strong mayors can promote progressive initiatives and solutions to large-scale problems like climate change, as New York City did under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

And in San Francisco, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom (now Governor of California) issued the first gay marriage license in the country, catapulting marriage discrimination into a national spotlight that, finally, saw marriage equality enshrined in law.

“If you want public policy innovation to happen, you probably need that mayor with an agenda and with the ability to appoint staff who can enact their agenda,” Chapple said. However, she said she is less confident about limiting a mayor’s power to matters of “provincial priority.”

“This makes me a little nervous,” Chapple said. “This is getting into dangerous territory all of a sudden…This could really sabotage any kind of smart growth or transit-oriented communities that so many in Toronto have fought to support, to get enacted.”

Phil Pothen, a city attorney who serves as the Ontario environmental program manager for Environmental Defence, said the provincial government is using the affordable housing crisis as a “sort of cover” to introduce legislation that “has nothing to do with with that theme. ”

Expanding the power of mayors will not solve the affordable housing crisis, Pothen said, pointing to the Ford administration’s inaction on widely supported recommendations such as ending foreclosure zoning.

“It boils down to any idea that what was holding up housing supply and policy change in Toronto was lack of power in the hands of the mayor is complete fantasy,” Pothen said. “[Rather], is a lack of political will on the part of the mayor and his supporters. This change, we are very concerned, is likely to make things worse.”

Pothen said giving the mayor power over senior staff removes their independence and ability to come up with new ideas. He would also reduce the power of opposition council members to push through budget changes in ways a mayor doesn’t like. “That means a lot of ideas that would be negotiated and taken seriously and negotiated will be considered dead on arrival.”

Centralizing power also creates opportunities for corruption, he said, which was one reason former Toronto Mayor David Miller rejected an offer from the then Liberal government for greater powers. Miller was one of five former Toronto mayors who wrote an opinion piece in the toronto star earlier this week arguing against strong mayoral systems.

The mayors of Toronto and Ottawa are set to gain sweeping new powers as Ontario Premier Doug Ford pushes for US-style “strong mayor” systems. Photo by Wladyslaw/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“This is deeply undemocratic and a formula for bad decisions made in the interests of the very few who have access to the office of prime minister,” the former mayors wrote.

Metropolitan University of Toronto professor emeritus Myer Siemiatycki said the government’s push for strong mayors is about shifting the blame for the housing crisis onto municipalities, rather than solving it. City councils are approving record numbers of housing starts, he said, and the problems stem from the province’s unwillingness to address exclusionary zoning and affordability requirements. It will also weaken municipalities, Siemiatycki said.

“Veto powers are very strictly prescribed only for areas where a city council decision may conflict with and challenge a provincial priority,” Siemiatycki said. “It is almost the equivalent of an attempted hostile takeover of municipalities, or guardianship over municipalities, by making the mayor responsible for making sure that nothing comes out of city hall that is not compatible with provincial priorities.

“It’s a really useful piece of legislation; it’s just not about improving the supply, or indeed the affordability, of housing.”

Leave a Comment