Premier Ford announced this week he would introduce strong mayor legislation for both Ottawa and Toronto in 2023 and other Ontario cities in 2024. Like a bull in a china shop, the 800 pound gorilla is again chest beating and charging our democracy during ongoing municipal elections; all that’s old is new again.
This isn’t to suggest strong mayor governance is positive or negative – there are merits to both arguments – instead my point is that it’s improper for Premier Ford to introduce significant changes to municipalities after a recent provincial election when it was not brought up AND in the midst of ongoing municipal election campaigns across Ontario; political transparency this was not.
Strong mayor governance provides mayors the ability to set budgets, override council through vetoes, and even dismiss department heads, all unilaterally, justified because of the mayor’s city-wide mandate. It centralizes power in the mayor’s office while reducing the power of councillors, administration, and the bureaucracy. The mayor serves as executive, while council as legislature.
In regards to a mayoral veto, Premier Ford said he wanted mayors to benefit from it, but added that “two thirds of the council can overrule the mayor” with its own veto. A council veto would serve as a check on strong mayor powers, but as local researcher and commentator Frazier Fathers said, for Windsor city council to override a mayoral veto it would require seven votes of council, which he suggested could hamper efforts to create more bike lanes, affordable housing, climate action, and even taxation, because of the high bar.
Premier Ford also said if mayors “aren’t respectful” they “won’t be in office in four years”; how quaint.
Premier Ford justified the expansion of powers by stating mayors are “accountable for everything” but only have the “same single vote as a councillor.” He argued that with expanded powers, mayors would have the ability to make “good” or “tough” decisions, while being “accountable” to constituents. He also said strong mayors don’t benefit from expanded powers because of the “tremendous responsibility and ability to make the appropriate changes” they see as necessary.
The province is expected to table strong mayor legislation during this summer session which starts August 8, 2022, and with Ford empowered with a stronger majority government, I expect it passes swiftly and without Cabinet or caucus opposition; only that of the opposition parties and affected councils, of course.
This is not the first, second, or even third time that Premier Ford interfered in ongoing elections; I kid you not, this is the fourth time. In July 2018 Ford announced he was cutting Toronto city council in half, as well as cancelling Peel and York Regional Chair Elections to kneecap his perceived political opponents (then Patrick Brown and Stephen Del Duca respectively). More consequently, this time it doesn’t only affect three municipalities, instead it affects all of Ontario.
Premier Ford’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, said strong mayor legislation would get “priority projects” accomplished, like building affordable housing, but Global News’ Colin D’Mello reported that when Premier Ford was asked how strong mayor governance would do so, he responded, “I don’t remember about affordable housing.”
Premier Ford said he wasn’t approached by any mayor seeking these powers, so we can take it as a Ford Original. So why is Ford doing this? Ford lived and worked in Chicago for a significant portion of his adult life and has championed U.S. governance while lamenting the weakness of Canadian mayors, even pointing to former Chicago mayor Richard Daley as someone who “got things done.”
In a local context, the forces that lead to former CAO Jason Reynar’s exit wouldn’t have been necessary; there’d be no need to fire the CAO when the mayor IS the CAO. Think of Windsor politics currently. Now think of it under strong mayor governance.
And so what was expected to be a typical mayoral race has been completely upended by Premier Ford, the proverbial 800 pound gorilla who has once again emerged during ongoing election campaigns. The stakes are higher and the clock is ticking with the game in play.