Toronto needs new powers… just not yet

Cars displaying handicapped parking permits occupy most of the "Courier Parking" zone on Duncan St. in Toronto.
Mayor John Tory needs more power to lead Council before Council gets more power to tax residents.

Toronto mayor John Tory has called for his city to receive “more power” from the provincial government. He’s absolutely right: the city needs a realignment of its powers. Just, not yet. There are other things that must be fixed first.

Toronto's mayor needs more power to lead Council, before Council can be given more power to tax Toronto.

"Toronto...  is being held hostage by prehistoric handcuffs kept on us by other governments for reasons best known to them,” Tory told reporters last week. “I intend to initiate a vigorous debate on a complete rethink of cities and their powers and responsibilities and how they are financed.”

Tory is right that the City of Toronto, with 2.8 million residents and a workday population that easily exceeds 4 million, should be allowed more independence than it has under Canada's constitution and Ontario's laws. It's time for federal and provincial governments to let Canada's major cities grow up. Toronto is larger in terms of population and budget than all but four provinces. It should have commensurate authority.

"Toronto is a big city with our own.. mature, sophisticated, big, accountable government," says Mayor John Tory.

Uhh... not really.

But, while Tory is focused mostly on granting the city more freedom to levy new taxes without begging for provincial blessing, he's wrong about the city's readiness to wield those powers with maturity. Talking with NEWSTALK1010 morning host John Moore on Friday, Tory argued "we’re a big city with our own.. mature, sophisticated, big, accountable government."

He's dead wrong about the last part, and I suspect even he would admit it if pressed. The governance structure of Toronto is not mature. Quite the opposite. It's nowhere near ready for real power.

The mayor of Toronto is elected by popular vote across the city – normally winning a plurality of more than 380,000 votes. It's the biggest plurality of any elected official in Canada. To win, Toronto's mayor was subjected to a gruelling 12-month campaign that thoroughly vets every candidate. Voters have over a hundred opportunities to assess each serious candidate's platform and personality at public events and debates. Plus, Toronto's municipal press thoroughly investigates and reports on the candidates. By election day, voters are able to have judged the candidates on their merits, assessed their platforms and proposed policies and decided which one best reflects their own vision for the future of the city.

By comparison, candidates running for council typically win based largely on name-recognition. They are generally not tested on their platforms, nor are they often asked their position on city-wide issues such as budgets, transit, policing or taxes. If there is an issue that galvanizes voters in a ward to elect a candidate, it is most likely to be the imposition of local stop signs, traffic lights or speed humps. Yet, each of the city's 44 councillors (soon to be 47 in 2018) has an equal vote with the mayor in council decisions. As a result, the mayor's agenda – tested and approved by the people of Toronto – is frequently delayed, diverted or downright denied by councillors who have no mandate to do so.

Any councillor can stand up in council, at almost any time, and put forward a motion that stymies the mayor's platform. Or, launches the city on a ridiculous, expensive, embarrassing, sometimes even illegal undertaking. The only way for the mayor to prevent this, is to "bribe" a majority of councillors to stay out of the way and/or support him. These bribes come in many forms: appointments to desirable boards and commissions, high-profile committee chairmanships, cash for their pet projects, etc. Regardless of their form, however, they all cost taxpayers money. Thus, the budget expands – and it becomes nearly impossible to introduce efficiencies or cost-saving measures because it's too difficult and expensive to build a coalition to support them.

Any councillor can stand up in council and launch the city on a ridiculous, expensive, embarrassing, sometimes even illegal undertaking.

So, the most likely outcome of giving Toronto more taxation powers is that it will vastly increase the cost of living in the city until the population starts decreasing as people flee to more liveable communities. More powers to tax should only be granted to Toronto after its governance structure has been re-balanced, so the mayor can actually deliver what he or she campaigned on. The structure and governance rules of Toronto's municipal government must change.

The spectre of a competent, independent Toronto, led by a popularly-elected mayor who earned 400,000 votes and can deliver on her campaign promises has always terrified the provincial government – no matter what Party has led it. It shouldn't. The very title of the 2006 Act that governs Toronto, "The Stronger City of Toronto for a Stronger Ontario Act” recognizes that a stronger Toronto will be good for the province. A city more capable of managing its own affairs will free up the provincial government to better look after the entire province.

Only the mayor has a mandate to deliver a city-wide agenda. Councillors do not. Council's role should be to hold the mayor in check – not to head off on its own quest to reshape the city in a fashion no one voted for.

It's time for Toronto to have more powers. But, the balance of power at Toronto City Council must be fixed first. The mayor should have the power to govern as he or she promised to do during the election campaign; and Council, as a body – not individual Councillors – should have the power to hold the mayor in check. Currently, this is not the case. It must be made so, before new taxation powers are granted.