What Chicago Parking Meters Are Saying About Doug Ford’s Plans To Give Toronto A ‘Strong Mayor’

As Premier Doug Ford contemplates giving greater power to the mayors of Ontario’s largest cities, he may want to consider the history of Chicago’s parking meters.

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has yet to release details of its plan to implement “strong mayor” systems in Toronto and Ottawa. But in his few public comments on the subject, Ford has cited Chicago among American municipalities he would like to emulate.

Many experts say there is merit to the province’s argument that expanding authority to major city mayors could improve accountability and allow municipal leaders to carry out their mandates more effectively.

Yet even as Toronto appears headed for a shakeup that will give its mayor more clout on City Hall, there is pressure in Chicago to do the opposite, with critics arguing that insufficient checks and balances on the highest municipal office there sometimes They have been disastrous for the government. The third-largest city in the US In that sense, the Chicago experience could serve as a warning to Ontario lawmakers about what happens when mayors get too strong.

“The argument for a powerful executive is that he can do more. The downside is that it all depends on the judgment of a single individual,” said Joe Ferguson, who for 12 years served as Chicago’s inspector general, which is an independent watchdog of city government. This year he launched a nonprofit organization to overhaul Illinois’ city government structure, and curbing the influence of the mayor’s office is one of his top priorities.

Ferguson cites the parking meter fiasco as a prime example of the need for reform.

In a deal that has since become infamous, in 2008 then-Mayor Richard M. Daley privatized Chicago’s parking meters. Private investors agreed to pay $1.15 billion (US) to take over the parking system for 75 years, and despite the long-term implications of the deal, the council had only days to review it before Daley approved it in the town hall.

Profits from privatization allowed Daley to plug budget deficits without raising taxes for a few years. But a decade after the deal was signed, investors raised parking prices and fully recouped their original investment. They may spend the next 60 years reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, while the city is deprived of a valuable source of income for generations.

“That’s what an all-powerful mayor can do without the proper mechanisms (to keep them in check),” Ferguson said.

It’s not at all clear that Ontario’s government reforms will result in Chicago-style governance in Toronto’s city council. some observers they are also quick to point out that the mayor of Chicago owes much of his authority to the political convention rather than to the authorities to whom the office is given by law.

But Ford has said he plans to give Toronto’s mayor veto power over council decisions, which could only be overridden by a two-thirds majority. That would mirror the Chicago system and be a change from the current regime under which Toronto’s mayor is just one vote on the 26-member council and has to muster majority support for any initiative.

One American-style change that the Ontario government seems unlikely to emulate is allowing political parties at the municipal level. That could be a good thing. Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, said the worst abuses in the Windy City occurred when a united Democratic Party dominated the council and other local government offices, leaving no effective opposition to the mayor.

“The office became too powerful because it combined the party and the mayor’s office, and the mayors who stayed in office for a long time became tyrannical,” Simpson said. But he believes that when there are sufficient controls, “in general, the strong mayor system of government is good.”

Gabriel Eidelman, director of the Urban Policy Laboratory at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, thinks Toronto could benefit from expanded powers for mayors.

But he argues that the council veto that the prime minister has tabled would not be the most effective change. Eidelman points out that in his eight years in office, Mayor John Tory has rarely lost a major council vote, so a veto isn’t likely to lead to any different results.

Rather than greater influence over council decisions, Eidelman argues that the mayor should have more executive control over the public service. Under the current system, City of Toronto staff is responsible for submitting the annual budget and other policy recommendations to the council for approval. In Chicago and other cities, the mayor has the authority to present a spending plan and propose other initiatives independent of staff.

Eidelman said Toronto’s staff-driven system is “backwards” and doesn’t align with provincial and federal governments in which premiers use annual budgets to set their priorities.

While Toronto’s mayor already has informal influence over the city’s budget, Eidelman argued that giving the mayor the explicit power to write the spending plan each year would “(add) an element of accountability” by making it clearer to the public who is responsible for the city. financial decisions

Eidelman also believes that any strong mayor system should give Toronto’s mayor discretion to appoint the heads of city departments, which he says would make it easier for an administration to implement its agenda. Currently, the council approves the appointments of senior officials.

“If a ‘stronger’ mayor means strengthening the executive powers of the mayor … then that’s a useful reform,” Eidelman said.

Others argue that unless the Ontario government is prepared to give Toronto more powers, expanding the authority of the mayor will only have the effect of making whoever holds office a bigger fish in a pond that is too small.

Kate Graham, a political scientist who teaches at Western University, said Toronto’s biggest challenges stem from the fact that the province has gradually offloaded responsibility for social services, housing, public transportation and other important functions to the municipality. without providing new sources of income to match .

In June, the Toronto council echoed that argument when it voted not to oppose the province’s strong mayor proposal, but reiterated its call for the government to give it more autonomy to raise revenue.

Successive Ontario governments have rejected calls to give Toronto more taxing powers, and Canada’s largest city remains heavily reliant on its property tax base. Some US cities have a wider range of options, including a municipal sales tax in Chicago and an income tax in New York City.

“We don’t have weak mayors, we have weak cities,” Graham said. “If the province wants to improve the ability of municipalities to solve problems, that is where they should focus their energy.”

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter who covers city hall and city politics for the Star. Contact him via email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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