The real risks of using a ‘strong mayor’ system to get things done
By the time the next municipal elections take place in Ontario on October 24, the province could change the governments of Toronto and Ottawa so that each is led by a « strong mayor », with the power to decide key issues such as the budgeting, regardless of the wishes – or votes – of the elected council members of these cities.
The idea of a strong mayor has supporters and detractors on all sides of the political spectrum, but there isn’t much clarity about what that means. Based on my experience working with strong mayor systems in the United States, I can tell you that the system is not a panacea and comes with risks.
Proponents of a strong mayor system see it as a way to « get things done » in key areas that have been bottlenecks. Even though the housing market is cooling, Toronto and Ottawa still face a serious shortage of affordable housing. Transit projects take decades to build, and developers complain that city governments tie their plans to endless debate.
Those who oppose a strong mayor see the move as a sinister plan by Doug Ford’s provincial government to ignore the wishes of elected city councils.
Ford’s record is already alarming on this front. His previous government halved the number of councilors just before the last municipal elections in 2018, and his cabinet spent a field day issuing Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs) to allow developers to build sprawling projects carving up Ontario’s much-loved Greenbelt and the hyper-unsustainable – dense tower blocks that don’t help housing affordability.
Critics also worry about what might happen if a strong mayor comes to power, who is also a populist determined to crush the cities’ careful official plans for sustainable smart growth. When he was a Toronto city councilor, Ford himself actually tested this scenario when he tried to cut a unilateral deal to undermine Toronto’s Waterfront and have hand-picked developers build a luxury yacht club. , a mega-mall and lakeside Ferris wheel with little to no park.
Fortunately, his plan failed.
I worked in the United States for strong mayors. The municipal government there is different, as is the definition of “strong mayor”. American cities generally operate with party politics at the municipal level, since the mayor and councilors operate on party platforms. They also have taxing powers that we don’t have.
But those same powers can also let them back off on dubious schemes, such as massive “urban renewal” projects that destroy neighborhoods. Many major US cities also faced bankruptcy.
The biggest rival for a US mayor’s power isn’t the city council, it’s the city manager – an appointed bureaucrat who wields vast power and can render elected councils weak or irrelevant.
Canadian cities have chief executives, but they’re not really the mayor’s rival; they are professional civil servants who have only a fraction of the powers enjoyed by many American municipal managers.
I worked in Boston for former mayor Tom Menino as acting chief planner. He was a relatively good mayor according to many, but all the decisions were made in his offices. I rarely had any interaction with the advisors.
While it’s true that a strong « good » mayor may be able to get more things done faster, what happens when we elect a bad mayor who tries to run the city with slogans and ploys insane?
I fear that under the guise of trying to “get things done,” strong mayor Doug Ford’s move to centralize power could undermine a core virtue of Canadian cities: the need for consensual urban building.
Democracy, in cities and everywhere else, relies on hearing many voices – not just the loudest one – and having a non-partisan group of public servants loyal not just to a single politician, but to the city itself. -same.