Ford Government Confers New Executive Powers on Mayors Prior to Elections
– Enver Villamizar
On October 24 municipal elections will take place across Ontario for city and town councils as well as school boards. The elections come following the provincial election in which the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party won a majority with just a 43 per cent voter turnout and 18 per cent of the electorate voting for them.
Following the election Premier Doug Ford revealed that the election was about giving his government a mandate to, amongst other things, build a road to the Ring of Fire in northern Ontario to provide critical minerals coveted by those betting on the electric vehicle market and new battery plants to be paid for by the public in various ways but run by global monopolies. A major aspect of this direction is the demand of these global monopolies to move quickly on various municipal zoning approvals and environmental assessments “to get shovels in the ground” and to ensure everything is at their disposal and nothing slows down the direction they have set for the province. In addition, the government claims that the election provided an endorsement for its plan to build 1.5 million homes in the next 10 years and that this is all about getting rid of red tape for builders.
On August 9, three days into its second term in office, the newly elected PC government tabled and has now passed Bill 3, the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act. The legislation was not discussed prior to or during the election, but the meaning of the PCs’ slogan that Doug Ford would “get it done” is now becoming apparent.
The new legislation greatly limits and nearly eliminates the role of locally elected city councillors while centralizing executive powers for cities in the hands of the mayor. The legislation applies at the moment to the cities of Toronto and Ottawa but will be extended to other communities where the government feels the municipality is “committed to growth, committed to being able to get shovels in the ground, and you’ve got to be able to put that plan in place,” said Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs Steve Clark when discussing the legislation.
In particular the legislation provides the mayors with expanded executive powers which can be wielded in order to “align municipal decision-making with provincial priorities.”
In the name of these amorphous priorities under the increased executive powers they are being given, the mayors can now re-organize city hall, write their city’s budget and present it to council only for amendment and veto any council decisions or bylaws which in the mayor’s opinion do not align with the undefined provincial priorities. This veto can only be overridden by councillors with a two-thirds majority vote. Nonetheless, on anything which comes under the prescribed provincial priorities, it is the mayor alone who sets the budget and certain priorities and brings them to council. This is something given particular emphasis in the Ford government’s explanation for the powers.
Putting the power to set the budget solely in the hands of the mayor will facilitate “getting things done.” In this respect the logic is that, like in the U.S. cities identified, you need a powerful head of council to set the agenda for the government, and by extension the people, and the role of elected councillors is merely to amend a direction already set by decree. Under the current municipal legislation most municipalities have a budget committee to coordinate the budgeting process. The budget committee includes part or all of council and senior staff and usually has the mandate to “produce and circulate an approved statement of municipal priorities and goals to department heads, provide technical budgeting assistance through finance staff to departments, evaluate individual department budgets submitted to the committee, consolidate departmental and local board budgets into an overall budget document for council’s review and consideration.” These powers would now all be in the hands of the mayor or their designate.
The legislation provides for expanded powers for the mayor to hire and fire staff and direct city employees to implement the mayor’s decisions or vetoes. The mayor is given the power to appoint the chief administrative officer, who then can wield the mayor’s powers when these are delegated. The mayor also now has “the power to hire, dismiss or exercise any other prescribed employment powers with respect to the head of any division or the head of any other part of the organizational structure,” with a number of exceptions. As well, the mayor may also now establish or dissolve committees, appoint the chairs and vice-chairs of committees and assign functions to committees. The legislation also sets out how a municipality must hold a by-election for a mayor if the sitting mayor resigns or is otherwise unable to fill the position.
Framework for Wielding Powers Left to the Crown
Nowhere in the Ford government’s Strong Mayors legislation or in the debate on it in the Legislature were the provincial priorities explained or defined in any manner to establish a framework for the public to appreciate when these powers can be wielded. Instead, the legislation simply says that the Lieutenant Governor in Council will prescribe provincial priorities, by which we are supposed to understand that they will be outlined in the Speech from the Throne written by the Ford government. All of it remains mostly secret and outside of any public discourse. It should be kept in mind that the government has refused to make public the mandate letters issued to the various ministries.
At different points during debate in the Legislature, however, various ministers gave a glimpse into the areas these powers can be used for such as “construction and maintenance of critical infrastructure to support accelerated supply and availability of housing, including but not limited to transit, roads, utilities and servicing,” and “building more housing, transit and transit-oriented communities.” In the end it is the executive of the provincial government which gives the mayors broad arbitrary powers over the areas that the premier and his ministers decide.
It makes a real farce of elections for mayors who, through the Strong Mayors legislation, are clearly mandated to be agents of the premier while sidelining locally elected city councillors altogether.
To talk about accountability when the decisions are arbitrary and made in line with secretly set priorities is irrational. But that is what is clearly spelled out in the law. The legislation provides that any “decision made, or a veto power or other power exercised, legally and in good faith under this part shall not be quashed or open to review in whole or in part by any court because of the unreasonableness or supposed unreasonableness of the decision or exercise of the veto power or other power.” This is a clear example of the use of executive powers Canada’s constitutional order enshrines.
Ministerial Control Over Powers Defined
While not defining what priorities the powers will be used to push, the Strong Mayors legislation does define that the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing has the power to make regulations concerning all aspects of the new powers and how they are wielded, including preventing a mayor from delegating their powers to council, for example, considered an act of defiance towards the new powers. These ministerial regulations can be made retroactive up to six months.
Process of Passage
The legislation was rushed through the Legislature to have it in place for mayors elected in the October 24 municipal elections. According to opposition Members of the Provincial Parliament (MPPs), the government held a ministerial briefing on the legislation at 4:00 pm one day and then, at 10:45 pm the next day, MPPs were informed that the legislation would be tabled and debate would begin the following day. Seven days of debate took place on the legislation and it was passed on September 9, one month after it was tabled.
The committee assigned to study the legislation to propose amendments was the Standing Committee on Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy. It met on August 22 to start discussing the legislation, the same day Toronto mayoral candidate John Tory released a housing plan for the Greater Toronto Area. The minister putting forward the legislation, Steve Clark, said Tory’s plan is exactly the type of plan the new powers could be used to push through. This reveals that the legislation also serves to intervene in the Toronto municipal election in favour of a particular candidate. The use of power and privilege to push narrow private interests is more and more openly revealing the corruption inherent in Canada’s constitutional order.
Dear readers, it is all legal! There is allegedly nothing we can do about it! Or so they would have us believe.
1. The powers assigned do not include the power to hire, dismiss or exercise any other prescribed employment powers with respect to any of the following persons:
1. The clerk or deputy clerk.
2. A treasurer or deputy treasurer.
3. An Integrity Commissioner.
4. An Ombudsman.
5. An Auditor General.
6. A registrar, as described in section 168.
7. A chief building official, as defined in the Building Code Act, 1992.
8. A chief of police, as defined in the Police Services Act.
9. A fire chief, as defined in the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997.
10. A medical officer of health, as defined in the Health Protection and Promotion Act.
11. Other officers or heads of divisions required to be appointed under this or any other Act.
12. Any other prescribed persons.