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FORUM: His villainy was his lack of transparency (Jan. 2023)

January 24th, 2023 · No Comments

Our just “trust me” mayor has betrayed democracy

By Sue Dexter

“What I can’t support is change being rammed down our throats without a single second of public consultation.” John Tory after the province slashes council in half, 2018. 

“Trust me.” John Tory on receiving unprecedented minority rule powers, after no public consultation, 2022.

In politics, “trust me” might be the ballot question. In a democracy, it is a request that should not need to be made. 

In the past six months, the mayor of Toronto has abandoned the centuries-old foundation of constitutional democracy: majority rule which is 50 per cent, plus one.

In the process of strengthening his office to “deal with housing,” Tory has talked himself into becoming the province’s guy on council. Councillors can still debate and vote, they can express the wishes of residents, but the mayor can kill any matter he  judges to be in the provincial interest with one-third plus one minority and the stroke of his pen. 

What happened to him? What has happened to us?

The ‘Emergency’

Act one: Mid-election 2018, Premier Ford announces he is cutting council in half, from 48 councillors to 24. The mayor says the move was a complete surprise—the only notice he had was a 50-second musing in a long-forgotten meeting. 

A feisty Tory came out fighting: “It is my job to stand up for the people of Toronto, all the people of Toronto, whether they voted for me or not. And I firmly believe that one of my fundamental responsibilities is to protect the democracy which binds our society together. The bedrock of that democracy is fair process, that the people always have an opportunity to be heard by their government.”

Buried in the mayor’s reaction was something that would later appear prophetic: “Like many people in the city I believe we need a discussion about the role of the mayor, as well as a discussion about the size of council and other issues including term limits.” 

The mayor expressed frustrations in an interview with the Toronto Star’s David Rider: “I think people right now, they think that I have the authority to do a whole lot of things, and in fact, I have authority to do very little.” 

Clearly changes to his office were on the mayor’s shopping list as early as 2018, but in the years that followed, the need for consultation on changing that role or engaging the public in discussion was lost.

Act two: the hidden agenda

On July 21, 2022, an astounded council reacts to a Toronto Star report that the newly-elected provincial government was planning to give additional powers to the Toronto mayor. 

Councillors Matlow and Perks wished to have council reject the change in governance until after consultations had taken place. Councillor McKelvie persuaded council that it was better to request that the province simply hold back on its plans, while adding items to be included in negotiations on the change. McKelvie said, “We saw what happened in 2018. We took that all the way to the Supreme Court and we lost….If he (Ford) wants to do this and we are not able to stop it, then let’s…be consulted.”

Although he himself had had governance changes on his wish list for at least four years, Mayor Tory said nothing in that debate. 

The civic election that followed was characterized by rope-a-dope photo-op campaign by the mayor. He reluctantly agreed to appear in two all-candidate debates. On August 10, with council disbanded for the election, the province brought forward Bill 3, which gave the mayor a veto, but retained a two-thirds override from council. When asked, the mayor said he supported strong mayor powers. He provided no detail, but gave assurances the additional powers would not change the way he conducted business at city hall. 

Clearly, he was not satisfied; the province had not gone far enough. Unbeknownst to anyone, during the campaign he had gone to Queen’s Park to request additional unprecedented powers for his office. The public would not know the extent of it until after the new council was elected.

Act three: the policy blitzkrieg

Increasingly, through a string of bills, the activist Ford government has involved itself first in details and then wholesale change of governance, with no consultation or public input. Measured debate has little chance to survive against such a chaotic backdrop. 

Bill 103: On the day after the civic election, the province announced major changes to a wide range of existing policies including heritage, green standards, and fees for infrastructure upgrades necessitated by development. The bill threatens the city’s rental replacement bylaw which protects tenants from eviction by allowing their right of return.

But that was not the end of it.

“Trust me.”

Three weeks later, the province made public one last bombshell: Bill 39. This minority-rule legislation, with no time or application limits, allows the mayor to declare a victory even if two-thirds of council vote against him “if the head of council is of the opinion that a bylaw could potentially advance a prescribed provincial priority.” Tory has become the in-house provincial watchdog.

Sometime during the election, at a photo-op in a parking lot, the mayor disclosed that he himself had asked for the unprecedented power. Now that there was a fuss, he promised only to use it “if necessary” to get housing done. 

To explain the mayor’s embrace of extraordinary powers, the blogosphere points to his frustrations in July 2021 when he withdrew his plan to extend rooming house licensing and regulation to the suburbs, rather than test it with a vote. But that may only be part of the story: remember the video from four years ago, at a time of crisis, when Tory went on the record wanting changes to the mayor’s powers.

Despite his earlier devotion to consultation, he has provided no details about how his thinking evolved, how the office will be changed, or how the request arose. What quid pro quos might there have been? Was he promised money for the budget shortfall, or is that no one’s business but his? Should his thinking not have been disclosed to voters? The John Tory of 2018 would have trusted the electorate with the decision. 

In the weeks since becoming the strong mayor, he has come down with his own avalanche of changes to planning, zoning, and housing, and he has also diminished the role of council. He has: 

appointed a city manager without seeking council approval

formed a striking committee which unilaterally shortened the time for public consultation on the budget from 30-14 days

refused to support the call of a majority of councillors to hold a special meeting so the representatives of the electors of Toronto could express an opinion on the minority powers legislation before it was enacted by the province into law

brought back, as his first item of business, the rooming house legislation with only the dates changed

There are pivotal votes ahead, which cannot be suppressed, on a number of policy initiatives by the province. 

Where will Tory be on the conversion of Ontario Place into a giant spa with a parking lot for 11,000 cars? Where will he sit on the Metrolinx plan to destroy historic gardens at Osgoode Hall? Is there any issue on which the “trust me” mayor will lead the opposition to a provincial scheme or is he now hobbled by the deal he struck to ensure council does not pass any legislation that goes against provincial interests? It is true he brought the motion to council against the passage of Bill 23, but his was a constrained voice and hardly a description for leadership—the kind of leadership he gave four years ago in the fight against the cuts to council.

How will the rest of council respond to their reduced capacity? Will they bother to oppose knowing the mayor now holds a whip hand? And, probably most importantly, how will the residents of the city respond if their voice is seen to carry no weight? Will the number of people voting in elections fall even further?

Dec. 15, 2022: City council had its first discussion of minority powers. It voted 17-8 on a Councillor Morley motion to ask the Ford government to repeal the minority powers act. It voted 14-11 on a Councillor Matlow motion that asked Tory not to exercise any power less than a 50 per cent plus one majority. It voted 25-5 on a Councillor Bravo motion upholding majority rule on council. 

Mayor Tory voted against all three motions. As a strong mayor, he could veto any of the motions.

Let the games begin.

Sue Dexter is a member of the Harbord Village Residents’ Association.

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