Smaller Toronto council just a start

The council chamber at Toronto City Hall. (Stan Behal/Toronto Sun files)

The Ontario government passed Bill 5 today – which reduces the size of Toronto City Council to one mayor and 25 councillors representing wards that are contiguous with the provincial legislative ridings. This means very voter in Toronto will now have one City Councillor, one Member of Provincial Parliament and one Member of Provincial Parliament. It’s a good day for governance in Canada’s biggest city.

Reducing Council triggers other changes

Whether you agree or disagree with a smaller city council, there are other changes that will be driven by council’s new size. Among these, changes to the size and structure of various city council committees are required.

7 Standing Committees.  Councillors currently must sit on at least one of seven Standing Committees that report to Council. These are:

  • Community Development and Recreation Committee
  • Economic Development Committee
  • Government Management Committee
  • Licensing and Standards Committee
  • Parks and Environment Committee
  • Planning and Growth Management Committee
  • Public Works and Infrastructure Committee

Typically, these committees have six members – 6 x 7 = 42. This worked well when there were 44 councillors. But, with just 25 to choose from, the structure of Standing Committees may have to change.

Committees are important, because it is at committee meetings that the work of shaping city policy is supposed to happen. Whether it does is open to debate, since all committee decisions can – and routinely are – ignored or overturned at council meetings. But, not all standing committees are equally important.

The most important committee is the Executive Committee comprising the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, the chairs of the Standing Committees and four members-at-large selected from among the council. One of these “at-large” councillors is appointed by the mayor as Chair of the Budget Committee – a subcommittee reporting to the Executive Committee.

Earlier this year, Council voted to establish an eighth Standing Committee on Housing, beginning in the new term. But, one Council cannot legally bind the next, so there is no reason this committee need ever be struck. It was to replace and sub-committee on Affordable Housing that reported to Executive Committee. It could easily remain.

Special Committees.  There are also a number of other Special Committees reporting to Council:

  • Audit Committee
  • Board of Health
  • Civic Appointments Committee
  • Striking Committee

Community Councils.  As well, there are four Community Councils that, nominally at least, deal with local planning issues: Etobicoke York Community Council, North York Community Council, Scarborough Community Council and Toronto & East York Community Council.

+/- 100 More Councillor Appointments. Finally, there scores of other committees, boards, agencies and corporation boards to which city councillors are appointed. These already take up a great deal of a councillor’s time, while providing little or no benefit to the resident or taxpayer.

Trimming the Standing Committees

Simply doubling the committee and board work load of each councillor when the new half-sized council is elected doesn’t make sense. Although, it might make many of them too busy to cobble together hair-brained ideas and pet projects. Instead, this would be an opportune time to completely re-imagine the committee structure.

Economic Development Committee is pointless. It inevitably becomes an excuse for its elected members to travel the world on the taxpayer’s dime, “promoting” Toronto but producing little or no results. Its nickname is the “show and tell” committee because most meetings have little or no real business to discuss, but instead become an opportunity for the chair and members to showcase businesses in their wards or cool innovations they’re interested in. It should be eliminated and its responsibilities re-assigned to the Executive Committee, which is supposed to be looking out for Toronto’s economic development anyway.

Parks and Environment Committee is also a lightweight committee. Responsible for parks but not recreation, it oversees only half of one major city division. Merge it with the Community Development & Recreation Committee.

Community Development & Recreation Committee is responsible for human and social services, recreation and, for no particular reason: fire and ambulance services. Emergency Services should be transferred to Executive Committee (or a subcommittee of Executive Committee for Police, Fire, Paramedics & Emergency Planning). CDRC should then take over responsibility for parks and environment.

This would leave five Standing Committees, each with five City Councillors. A nice fit for a 25-member council.

  • Government Management Committee
  • Licensing & Standards Committee
  • Parks, Recreation & Community Development Committee
  • Planning & Growth Committee
  • Public Works & Infrastructure Committee

All of these committees should feed their work through the Executive Committee – and not directly to City Council – but that’s an argument for another day.