Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday August 17, 2022
Is a strong mayor system coming to a community near you?
It could be. When Premier Doug Ford announced recently that his government would implement strong mayors in Toronto and Ottawa, it sounded like those two cities would serve as pilot projects for the rest of the province, which makes sense.
But already Ford is promising to move to strong mayors in other Ontario cities. During a speech to the Association of Municipalities Ontario annual conference in Ottawa, Ford said: “Building more homes is at the top of the list … In the coming months, we’ll have more information on how these tools will be expanded to other municipalities so more municipal leaders like yourselves can help build Ontario.”
Observers say cities in the GTA are the most likely immediate targets, as they have what the province sees as the most serious housing shortages. But Ford is not a consultative leader, and he isn’t remotely concerned about testing something and then learning from the results. (Consider the provincial basic income pilot project, which he cancelled before results were available.) So for those of us interested and concerned about local democracy and how our towns and cities work, it’s best to assume this could be coming sooner rather than later.
What would it mean for your community? First, let’s discuss what a strong mayor is. Basically, the mayor is granted executive authority in key areas in order to advance a particular agenda, in this case the province’s objective of building a lot more housing. In the cases of Ottawa and Toronto, legislation tabled last week by Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark will give mayors of those cities veto powers over any local laws that conflict with provincial priorities.
That power is not absolute. If two-thirds of city council votes against a mayoral directive, the veto could be overturned. But as anyone who observes our fractious municipal governments already knows, getting two-thirds of council onside on any particular issue is rare indeed.
In Hamilton, a strong mayor system raises the darkly humorous scenario of former Opposition leader Andrea Horwath being pressured to agree with Ford government priorities under a strong mayor system. Horwath was found in a Mainstreet Research poll to be considerably ahead of other mayoral candidates, in particular Keanin Loomis and Bob Bratina. But that’s just one poll, it’s very early yet, and there is no indication yet that Hamilton would be in Ford’s sights.
On the other hand, we know that minister Clark, along with Ford’s only local MPP Donna Skelly, take a dim view of Hamilton’s decision to freeze the urban boundary, forcing new development to be limited to inside the boundary. Under a strong mayor system, with provincial backing the mayor could almost certainly overrule that decision, so it’s not hard to imagine Ford might target Hamilton to ensure he gets his way without the optics of direct provincial interference in local democracy.
In conclusion, it’s wise to keep the province’s motivation in mind. It’s not to strengthen local government or mayors for any altruistic reason. It’s nothing more than a tool to more efficiently advance provincial objectives, in this case getting more housing built, even over the objections of local governments and the citizens they represent.
So is a strong mayor the best thing for our communities? On balance, we would argue no. For all that is wrong with the status quo, having a mayor directly responsible for ensuring provincial priorities are achieved regardless of local sentiment is not healthy for local democracy or self-determination. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)