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A Weak-Willed Strong Mayor

Lest this begins to look like a retreat to the familiar, a purely Toronto municipal politics blog, the second such item in three days, you can put your mind at ease. Nothing but pure fluke. Just a happenstance of circumstance as they say, and if they don’t, they should. The torpid weather. An annoying struggle with another piece of writing. Some rather exceptional matters in and around City Hall.

It started during the first day of the final council meeting of the term, next stop municipal election in October. The item up for debate was the city Ombudsman’s interim report on last year’s park encampment clearances. Amidst the reactionary caterwauling from the usual suspects, Were these people really homeless?, Weren’t they more a mixture of criminals and activists? Weapons! Drugs! Performative Artists!, Mayor John Tory got to his feet to chastise Councillor Josh Matlow who had asked the city staff who oversaw the implementation of the clearances if they would apologize for the aggressively ham-fisted park approach to the evictions.

According to Toronto Star columnist and City Hall Watcher Matt Elliott: “After Matlow asks for an apology from staff over the 2021 encampment evictions, Mayor John Tory suggests Matlow must be in favour of encampments. The mayor says he, by contrast, opposes encampments. “They are unsafe, they are unhealthy and they are illegal.” [bolding mine]

Conflating support for the unhoused, forced outside into these encampments by events and crises beyond their control, a pandemic, a severe lack of shelter space and affordable housing, poverty, mental health and addiction crises, and support for the encampments themselves, is pure John Tory when he forgets that he’s always pretending to be progressive minded. Evidently, he’s already kicked-in to campaign mode. Despite the din of Dickensian level villainy being tossed around the room by his political allies, the mayor decided he could not stand by and allow city staff to be vilified with demands of accountability for their actions.

Another day. Another term. The same John Tory.

Later that same afternoon, the premier of the province, Doug Ford, emerged from his post-election hibernation to announce that his government was in the process of granting the cities of Toronto and Ottawa something called ‘a strong mayor system’. After the start of yet another municipal election campaign, the premier wades in with yet another substantial change to municipal governance, the last one, four years ago, to cut the number of city councillors in half. We are, it seems, one election cycle away from Doug Ford, using provincial powers over municipalities at his disposal, to rid City Hall of every meddlesome councillor and declaring himself Czar of Toronto for Life, a position he’s always coveted, premier of the province being nothing more than a way station along the way toward the prize.

The debate over the ‘strong mayor’ is too detailed for this post. I recommend Brian Kelcey’s January Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) op-ed for a nuanced and reasoned argument in favour of strengthening the office of the mayor in bigger municipalities. For me, just viscerally, granting one elected official increased powers can only lead to a diminishing of democratic participation especially at the local level. It trends authoritarian which isn’t really showcasing much positive these days. Rather than hand the position of mayor more power over council colleagues, I’d prefer to see council itself vote for the position of mayor, bestowing the candidate with the best chances of reaching regular consensus the position, an idea pitched by John McGrath a-way back when in 2012.

Like I said, too multifaceted a debate for here and now.

What concerns me in this particular situation, coming from Doug Ford, is that it has nothing to do with better or more effective and efficient municipal governance. It is simply about power. Like the decision to cut council numbers in 2018, to place real, actual power into fewer and fewer hands. And not just any hands, as it turns out. Pure speculation here but I’d bet the farm, if I had a farm, that with another mayor at helm in Toronto, David Miller, say, or Olivia Chow or Jennifer Keesmaat or Gil Penalosa, say, the last thing Doug Ford would be doing is giving them more power to operate.

For his part, the current mayor of Toronto is all for the move. Surprise, surprise. A creature in the mold of noblesse oblige pretense with pure C.E.O inclinations who doesn’t like to wallow in the messy back-and-forth of hoi polloi democracy. “We need to speed up the pace of how we get things done,” Mayor Tory said. Alarm bells should be going off and red flags waving whenever this kind of statement gets thrown around to support consolidating more power into a single office.

The mayoral claim that the strong mayor news from the province came as, well, news to him yesterday was undercut somewhat when he confessed that “he’s had no formal conversations with Ford about expanding the powers of the mayor’s office, but that the topic of finding ways to speed up housing construction came up in ‘passing’ during the pair’s most recent meeting in June.” Uh-huh. And within 24 hours of the strong mayor announcement, both the mayor and premier are singing from the same got-to-build-more-housing-more-faster hymn book although, as Councillor Gord Perks claimed in Twitter thread yesterday, “I cannot think of a single time Toronto City Council voted down a housing proposal the Mayor supported. Nor can I remember an instance of Council delaying a housing proposal of his.”

In the parlance of the Watergate investigation, Mayor Tory needs to come clean about what he knew and when he knew it. Or maybe that was in Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Instead of using a genuine crisis to cover his magisterial political grasping, what the mayor needs to be frank about is why he wants even more power when he’s been so averse to use the powers of the office already at his disposal. All over social media the past couple days have been examples of opportunities he’s had during his two terms in office to wield his mayoral might without having done so, in the housing file, no less, and as equally egregiously, taxation. While crying poor in the face of a monumental operating budget shortfall, some $800+ million, I believe, and waiting for the feds and Queen’s Park to deus ex machina in the cash, he’s refused to even consider broaching the taxing levies granted to the city since 2006.

It’s almost as if this otherwise weak-willed politician believes he will become strong if the word is thusly enacted from on high into some sort of statute.

There are solid arguments in favour of strengthening the mayor’s office, and I confess a deep, abiding wariness toward them. Made by honest brokers of the concept, though, they all come with other conditions and stipulations that attempt to balance the scales between robust decision-making and always fragile democracy. Maybe such details will be part of the legislation the province brings in at this late date, less than 100 days before the municipal election. Maybe. But I think it’s fair to ask if either Doug Ford or John Tory have earned the legitimacy to be considered honest brokers.

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