After three years of propping up Toronto’s incompetent but popular Mayor, Rob Ford, the City’s councillors stepped up this month to do what they could. They voted to reallocate office resources and administrative procedures at City Hall, making the Mayor effectively a figurehead. Council worked with the City’s legal staff to ensure that the motions passed were legally appropriate and in line with the fiduciary obligations of elected councillors. Observers around the world are getting the message that the City of Toronto intends to get back to business.
A little constitutional background…
The steps taken by City Council in November 2013 move Toronto part of the way back from The City of Toronto Act and closer to the situation of The Municipal Act, which had governed Toronto until 2007, and which continues now to govern all other Ontario municipalities. Canadian cities historically work under a “weak mayor” system, in which council is the body with authority, and the mayor acts as a chair. In Ontario, political parties stay behind the scenes and are not represented on the floor of council in any formal sense.
The problems created by Mayor Ford show that The Toronto Act needs at least some level of amendment. The Act needs to envisage a situation that would not be able to occur in other municipalities, or in the other levels of government. Provincial Premiers and the federal Prime Minister hold office subject to the confidence of their legislative chambers, following the British parliamentary tradition. Other mayors (and Toronto’s mayor, prior to 2007), while popularly elected, receive almost all their authority from their councils.
Can Council make it work?
The level of cooperation among the councillors has been refreshing, and hearkens back to the better traditions of Toronto’s civic governance. Most centre-right and right councillors were understandably in awe of the success of Rob Ford’s 2010 election campaign – despite the fact that most of them knew before 2010 that Ford had few leadership skills, and troubling personal flaws. The gradual peeling away of those councillors was evident in 2012, and was only hastened by the increasing unraveling of the Mayor’s situation in the last six months.
The historic mode of Toronto’s city councils has been one of partnership and accommodation between left- and right-wing councillors. Councillors have supported each other as each advocated for interests in their ward. They have worked together in standing committees to oversee the work of the various departments, and to cobble together programs and budgets. The post-amalgamation stresses of balancing downtown with suburban interests have been a continuing challenge. This was aggravated by the provincial downloading of social costs that occurred at the same time, in 1997. In hindsight, it is remarkable that councillors have done as well as they have.
A new charter for cities
A number of thinkers, including Don Tapscott and Richard Florida, have called for an improved system of governance for Toronto. Both Tapscott and Florida see signs of crisis in cities across North America and around the world. Tapscott argues that traditional, or “broadcast democracy” is not up to the challenges we face. He proposes a new set of principles, based on a version of “participatory democracy,” which would create some modern checks and balances to promote integrity and collaborative democracy. Among his values is Interdependence, which he describes as “elected officials and the public recognizing that the public and private sector have a role to play in sustaining a healthy society.”
Richard Florida argues that there is no returning to the days before Toronto’s amalgamation: “The amalgamated city reflects the underlying integration of the economy and provides the scale and scope that are needed for growth. It forces us to deal with our very real divides and not sweep them under the rug.” What is needed, says Florida, is a new charter: “[T]he basic idea would be to create a new kind of federalism, which extends from the provincial government through the city and all the way down to the varied communities and neighbourhoods that make it up. The council could be streamlined and made more manageable around the key communities that comprise the city. This could go beyond the hybrid structure of New York’s borough presidents.”
The current City of Toronto Act was conceived as a partial step towards more effective governance. Can we blame the framers for failing to anticipate the “black swan” event that was Rob Ford? The challenge now is to move forward with the broader conversation.