Toronto Council needs an OS upgrade

Toronto needs an operating system upgrade. Here's 6 easy fixes.

Toronto City Council has been whittled down to a more manageable size, but as its first meeting proved, it’s not just the number of councillors that’s a problem: it’s the decisions they make and how they make them.

By focusing on their own salaries and budgets as their very first order of business, the new council proves it remains as unaccountable as ever. You wouldn’t see a brand new provincial or federal government kick off its legislative agenda by feathering its own nest. How do these decisions happen?

It’s not just the councillors. It’s the system that is set up to fail. No one should be surprised that a bad decision-making system makes bad decisions. Reducing council’s size was a good first step. It’s essential, though, that Toronto finish the job: the structure of Toronto’s government and its process of law-making makes good decisions difficult, bad decisions almost impossible to avoid – all while ensuring no elected official can ever be held accountable any of any decisions good or bad.

This must change.

It’s time to change how Toronto makes its decisions

City staff have proposed some changes to council’s governance structure and decision-making processes which were largely adopted by council on Thursday. But, it’s not enough to fix the problems.

The only elected municipal politician who advances a platform of ideas for the whole city to vote on is the mayor. Yet, the mayor has very little power to implement the plan that was endorsed by voters in the longest election campaign in Canada.

Clearly, the mayor should have more influence. There are three obvious ways to accomplish this, but none of them are likely to fly politically in Toronto:

  1. Adopt a “Strong Mayor” system – similar to that in most US cities and London, England where the mayor is the person who runs the government and council exists largely to keep the mayor in check – not to advance its own agenda.
  2. Legalize Party Politics – Vancouver and Montreal both function reasonably well with slates of councillors campaigning together on a common platform. This would allow voters to know who supports the mayor’s platform and to hold individual councillors accountable for the council’s decisions. Parties can also discipline individual members and hold them to the tasks at hand.
  3. Return to a 2-Tier government – Toronto and many other cities in Ontario used to have a 2-tier government (many still do) with a higher metro or regional level of government or a board of control making the big, city-wide decisions: budgeting, capital infrastructure investment, etc. and local councillors focusing on local issues: parks, speed zones, development permits, etc.

All three of these options would give Toronto the governance rigour it desperately needs. But, none of these options is likely to be adopted in the current political climate. “Strong Mayors” are “too American” for Canadian taste – even though the government of London operates this way. Party politics is “too dirty” for Toronto – even though the NDP already operates this way at Toronto Council, albeit “unofficially” because it’s illegal. 2-Tier government is “old-fashioned” and “too unwieldy” for some tastes – even though it worked well, and continues to work well in regional municipalities across Ontario.

There’s a better, easier option: upgrade the city’s OS

Like your computer, cellphone, tablet and automobile, the city’s government runs on an “operating system” of sorts – its structure and decision-making processes. Here are six easy fixes that would make the city run better, by upgrading the way it operates.

1. Have city staff report to the mayor.

According to the City of Toronto Act (COTA), the mayor is the CEO of the city. Yet, the city’s permanent government employees do not report to him. Instead, Toronto’s civil service reports to the City Manager – a permanent employee – who reports directly to Council. He has 26 bosses. Which, in practice, means he has no boss. The City Manager is the most powerful person in the city. Change the City of Toronto Act to have the City Manager report to the Mayor as CEO of the City and Head of Council. As we saw with the late Mayor Rob Ford, city council already has the power to hold the mayor in check. He cannot “run away” with the city.

  • Changes to COTA are not required for this. The City can just adopt this change. However, appropriate amendments to s.134 and s.140 of COTA would make the relationship between the mayor and City Manager (Chief Administrative Officer in COTA) clear.

2. Have policy committees report through the Executive Committee.

City Council has adopted the staff recommendation for an interim governance structure with four Standing Committees. According to the city’s long-standing Procedures Bylaw and the COTA, these are “policy committees” that exist to consider and recommend changes to city policies within their respective areas of responsibility that do not affect spending. Money matters are the exclusive province of the Executive Committee. In practice, however, the policy committees routinely recommend decisions that commit the city to enormous spending. Change the city’s Procedures Bylaw to have all items from the policy committees flow through the Executive Committee and not directly to Council. This will allow the Mayor’s executive committee to make sure the recommendations reaching council fit within a broader strategy. It makes the mayor more accountable.

3. Add Community Council Chairs to the Executive Committee. 

City Council this week adopted the staff-recommended (smaller) structure for the Executive Committee: Mayor, Deputy-Mayor (appointed by the mayor), 4 x chairs of the Standing Committees (appointed by the mayor), the Chair of the Budget Committee and one member of council at large. That’s 8 people. Even numbers are never a good thing for committees. The city has four Community Councils that deal with local issues, each of which elects its own chair. Because the mayor de facto selects the members of the Executive Committee and currently must use those appointments to build a coalition of support for her agenda, there have often been geographical gaps in the Executive Committee. Change the city’s Procedures Bylaw to add the four Community Council chairs to the Executive Committee instead of the one at-large councillor. This would ensure geographic diversity on the Executive, increase the number to 11 (an odd number, ensuring majority decisions at full strength) and help ensure all voices are heard on the Executive.

  • Ultimately, I would like to see Community Council chairs be directly elected as Deputy Mayors by voters in their respective community council areas. But, that’s another topic for another day.

4. Eliminate “policy on the fly” at City Council. 

Wednesday’s embarrassing orgy of spending was prompted by a motion from the floor of council. Because any member of council can move any amendment on any item at almost any time, council debates often run for hours and council routinely adopts ridiculous, clunky, unworkable, or illegal laws. Change the city’s Procedures Bylaw to eliminate motions from the floor – give Council just 3 choices: Yes / No / Return to Committee. This would allow council to effectively veto initiatives it does not support. But, instead of amending items on the fly without any due diligence whatsoever, councillors who want changes can vote to send the item back to the relevant policy committee to be reworked. This increases the influence of the committees and the important work they do: hearing constituents, hearing staff recommendations, debating the details and making recommendations. Council would become a decision-making body – not a policy-working committee.

  • The only exception to this could be for legitimate “technical amendments” or truly urgent business. In these cases, the mayor should retain his/her current authority to put those technical amendments or urgent business directly to council. But, the mayor should diligently ensure that this opportunity is not abused – as it routinely is now.

5. Allow only the mayor to put business directly before council. 

Currently, the City Manager can put business directly to council, without going through any committee. This forces councillors to examine what are often complicated recommendations during council. That’s patently unfair and guarantees governance failure. Change the city’s Procedures Bylaw to allow only the mayor to put items directly to council without having them go through committee. If the City Manager works for the mayor, this makes even more sense.

6. Give Executive Committee authority to execute. 

Currently, major decisions such as transit development are initiated in a policy committee, then approved by council – at each stage in every project. This forces council to debate decisions such as Smart Track or Gardiner maintenance time and time again. At each step, the entire decision is essentially re-litigated. No decision is ever final. Projects take aeons and costs skyrocket. Change the city’s Procedures Bylaw to delegate milestone approval authority to the Executive Committee, once Council has made the initial decision. This, alone, would save the city hundreds of millions of dollars in capital expenses and accelerate infrastructure development by an order of magnitude. This is why “executive committees” exist in the first place: to execute council decisions!

These changes could be implemented almost immediately

These six changes would immediately make Toronto’s city governance more effective. They would reduce the amount of time Council spends debating, re-debating, deciding, re-considering, and then reversing bad decisions. It would make the mayor and council more accountable: they would have the power to get things done – and to hold a dilettante mayor in check where required. The mayor couldn’t steamroll decisions through a compliant executive because council can veto decisions. Councillors will have to be heard and considered at committees (including executive) because they could send matters back to committee as often as needed until majority support is achieved.

Best of all… none of these changes needs provincial approval. All can be implemented by the city on its own. That said, if the City of Toronto Act was amended to enshrine the first recommendation empowering the mayor as CEO of the city, it would make for a stronger, more resilient municipal government.

The Big Win: Fewer stupid decisions, less wanton gluttony

If these procedural changes had been in place on Wednesday, Council would not have voted to double its office budgets. The item would have been discussed at Executive Committee, all councillors would have had their say, citizens would have been heard in writing and in person and a recommended solution would have gone forward to the Council where it would have been straight up approved or rejected – or sent back for further consideration and amendment.