What if Rob Ford had ‘strong mayor’ powers?
The great number
The number of votes from major councils that had more than a third of support, but less than a majority, during then-Mayor Rob Ford’s tenure. If Ford had the same “strong mayor” powers that John Tory is about to receive, they could all have passed.
Asked about the mayor’s new powers, Mayor John Tory’s message was simple: trust me.
“You will be able to see that my motives are pure because I am not seeking re-election. I am here to do this job with as much energy, hard work and collaboration as ever,” he said in a speech at the Toronto City Council meeting held to kick off the new term, referring to the powers he is about to get once Bill 39 passes through the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. The bill will allow it to pass by-laws with the support of only one-third of the city council.
But Tory’s defense points to the big problem with the new powers.
While we’re willing to believe Tory will only use these powers for good, Tory won’t be mayor forever. Assuming he’s serious this time around about not seeking another term, someone new will take his job – and the powers – in 2026.
I can’t predict the future, but it’s not hard to imagine really bad scenarios, because, well, from 2010 to 2014, Toronto had a bad scenario. Tory’s predecessor, the late Mayor Rob Ford — brother of Premier Doug Ford — came to City Hall ready to slash and burn programs and services.
Needing to get a majority vote on the council was the only thing that worked to control some of his more destructive and chaotic impulses.
To illustrate, I went back and looked at the Rob Ford era votes which I tracked with my council dashboard – a very cheesy spreadsheet chronicling the results of important votes taken by the city council.
I identified 28 major votes that were supported by the mayor and at least a third of the elected council at the time, but failed to achieve a majority.
Under Ford, for example, there were 21 city council members — including the mayor — who wanted to cut $15 million from the 2012 operating budget. Reports had warned that the cuts put a variety of programs and services, including dental programs for seniors and reductions in weekday hours at city arenas.
A majority of 23 members on the 45-member council (at the time) blocked the move. But, of course, a majority would not be enough in a strong mayor scenario.
Had he only needed a third of the council’s backing, Tory’s predecessor would also have been able to push through a host of other dubious policy proposals he backed, but the majority of the council won’t let him. did not. Like, say, charging swimmers a per-swim fee to swim in every outdoor pool in the city, or cutting nearly $4 million from the library budget, or choosing not to fund a housing reserve fund. social.
He also could have succeeded in making charities pay for garbage collection, reinstating the sale of bottled water in city buildings, removing staff from the city ombudsman’s office, and removing community environmental days that provide free compost and electronic recycling.
And with strong mayoral powers, Toronto’s transit planning would have been even messier.
Ford’s push to direct funds from other transit projects – like the Finch West LRT – to pay for the huge cost of tunneling the entirety of Eglinton Crosstown might have succeeded, despite the fact that only 40% of the counsel was on his side. And Ford has reportedly been given permission to continue its fanciful quest to get the private sector to pay for the Sheppard subway extension, despite only 42% of council believing it.
Defenders of the new mayoral powers can point to the purported safeguard the province has written into its legislation. The new power to pass things with only one-third support only applies to issues aligned with established “provincial priorities”. But to suggest that it is any type of barrier is like suggesting that a « prohibited » sign is sufficient to secure a bank vault.
These priorities are malleable and vague. Current legislation states that “the construction of 1.5 million new residential units by 2031” is the main priority, along with “the construction and maintenance of infrastructure to support the accelerated supply and availability of housing « .
It’s broad enough that you can argue for anything. A mayor who wants to cut funds for libraries or recreation programs, for example, might claim it relates to the provincial priority, arguing that the savings will be directed to funding housing-related infrastructure.
That would be a bad faith argument, but we have no shortage of bad faith politicians who might have their eye on the mayor’s seat. Toronto is doing better today because the council has the ability to control these kinds of politicians. Tory may believe he has won Toronto’s trust to wield new powers, but is he really ready to assume the same from his successor?