On days like this, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford must be banging his head against the wall. This week he – and indeed every Canadian mayor – was reminded that a mayor’s powers are limited to a single vote.
That point was driven home when Councillor Joe Mihevc asked for a legal opinion on Ford’s unilateral decision to kill the Transit City plan, in December 2010, without consulting council. Mihevc also claimed Ford did not have the authority to sign a memorandum of understanding with the province to spend money from the Transit City project to put the proposed Eglinton LRT entirely underground.
The legal opinion suggested Ford did, indeed, overstep his authority. The province, too, has indicated that any agreement must be approved by the “governing body,” not just the mayor. The mayor is not an autocrat, no matter what he thinks his role is.
Unlike mayors in the USA, in Canada mayors have no additional power, and certainly no veto, that are not granted to any other member of council. Much of their authority is assumed by position or given by respect, rather than granted through legislation. They may act as chair, set the agenda, and control their own office budget, but can do little else outside the context of the democratic process. Unilateral decisions are not permitted.
In Canada, municipalities are children of their respective province, a role descended from the original British North America Act and as out of touch with current times as the BNA would be today. Cities, even our largest, have no independence as many American and European cities have. In every province, legislation defines what power, what authority and what responsibility municipalities enjoy. This antiquated – almost medieval – hierarchy puts our major cities on the same legislative level as any hamlet or village. And it puts every mayor on the same level as any other member of council: one vote, no veto.
Whether this is good or bad governance is a debate that provincial municipal organizations should be pressing on the provinces. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities should be demanding the federal government examine necessary changes to federal laws to facilitate provincial changes.
Author Gord Hume discussed this and related issues in his recent book, Taking Back Our Cities. Unfortunately for municipal politicians in Canada, Hume is a lone voice; provincial and federal municipal associations are unaccountably silent on the changes needed (and long overdue) in the provincial-municipal relationship. In fact, there seems to be a slightly too-cozy relationship between the provinces and their respective provincial associations. Association executives exhibit a tad too much reluctance to ‘rock the boat’ and upset that relationship.
The fight with Ford is not about transit dollars. It’s about authority and governance. I can sympathize: in the previous Collingwood council, I argued similarly against what I perceived as overstepping mayoral authority. It’s somewhat understandable that mayors assume they have more significance than their fellow council members because they are elected at large and, at least in Ford’s case, with a larger vote count that councillors get. But that significance is not defined in any legislation. They cannot act alone.
In the Globe and Mail, Patrick White writes,
The controversy has sparked a debate about whether he did or didn’t overstep his authority under the City of Toronto Act and, subsequently, whether it is Mr. Ford or the legislation that needs to change.
The Act may well need revision, but until such time as the province agrees to do so – and the province is very reluctant to relinquish any of its authority to municipalities, regardless of any election promises or claims to partnerships – Ford is the one who has to change.
Do some or all Canadian mayors need powers comparable to what their American counterparts enjoy? That would be a big debate, a fascinating and probably contentious one. It’s not likely to happen under the current Ontario government. None of the parties have expressed more than bland platitudes about the municipal-provincial relationship; their leaders usually smugly calling us “partners” without offering us a seat at the table for any decision that affects municipalities. In the province’s eyes, that partnership is a subservient role and municipalities have to tug their virtual forelocks in obedience.
As for the federal government, it won’t act until the provinces pressure it to do so. That day will come only when our municipal organizations show the spine to fight for a renewed, revised relationship. That will not happen, I suspect, until Hell freezes over.