Perspectives on City Charters

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How much power and autonomy should cities have? This is perennial question about local government in Canada – and one without a clear or simple answer. Canadian cities today are all over the map. Their basic structure and powers vary by province, and sometimes even within provinces. Some Canadian cities have unique legislation – typically in the form of a city charter or other special act – while others do not. The push for a city charter is an active conversation in some places, but seemingly not on the radar in others. It’s a complicated picture, and easy to get lost in the technical details of the many variables involved. What is clear is that the appropriate level of power and autonomy for Canada’s cities remains an open question.

A heavyweight panel tackled this question yesterday during a special session on city charters at the Canadian Political Science Association conference. It was a fascinating opportunity for debate among experts who, in some cases, have spent the better part of their careers examining these fundamental questions about urban governance.

Here’s my feeble attempt to capture the insights they shared.

The discussion started with political scientist Zachary Spicer, who presented a paper examining the present state of city charters in Canada. He outlined the difference between city charters and special legislation, and provided an overview of how they vary in the legal, fiscal and political powers they afford to their respective cities. He emphasized the ‘gives’ and ‘takes’ involved in the relationship between the provincial and municipal governments (in Spicer’s words, “a city charter requires two to tango”), highlighting that even when new powers are granted to cities, they may not be used and are often restrictive in nature.

Stephanie Kusie is the Executive Director of Common Sense Calgary. The City of Calgary (and City of Edmonton) signed a framework agreement for a city charter with the Province of Alberta in 2014, with a commitment to have the new legislation in place before the 2017 municipal election. The Alberta government is also currently in the final stages of a major review of its general municipal legislation – so the power of cities and municipalities is a hot conversation in this community. Kusie, a career diplomat with strong political connections, presented the basic tenants of the See Charter, Think Tax movement which advocates against any new tax power for Alberta’s big cities, and for citywide referendums before any new taxation powers are granted. She argued that “Albertans and Calgarians should be very concerned about city charters”, predicting they would provide new tax powers which big city councils “would not be afraid to use.” She aptly pointed out that it’s not as simple as being ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ city charters; it’s all about what the charter includes. As always, the devil is in the details.

Next up was Alan Broadbent, best known as the Chair of the Maytree Foundation and CEO of a private investment firm. Broadbent is also a heavy hitter in local government circles, as the author of Urban Nation, a founder of the Institute of Municipal Finance and Governance, and a leader in Toronto’s civic movement for greater local autonomy. In the late 1990s, Broadbent, Jane Jacobs and a several prominent business, academic and civic leaders convened a two day meeting “on taking control of the destiny of Canadian cities” (and if you’re interested, there is a very good little book which captures the essence of these conversations, as referenced in my Toronto blog too). This work attracted considerable media attention and contributed to the City of Toronto being recognized with its own legislation just a few years later. Broadbent assessed the City of Toronto Act, asking: did it work? His basic answer is no, as it didn’t address core big city issues of insufficient financing tools, limited powers, and the basic design of the Constitution. However, Broadbent recognized that progress has been made, and the work “has put the ideas in the hands of a new generation of people.” Broadbent argued that the problem is not just with the provinces in not extending power to cities; the problem is also with cities. He referred to municipal politicians sometimes “acting like they are in the minor leagues” and focusing too much attention on trivial matters like dog parks and bike lanes. He cited Jane Jacobs, saying “if you treat people like children, they will behave like children.” Broadbent contextualized the point this way: “When you get used to begging, and the only new tools made available to you are marginal, why would you take the political risk of asking for new tax powers? It’s better to keep blaming the province, or blame the Feds, and open a new doggie park” [Author added: mic drop].

Joe Garcea, a political scientist from the University of Saskatchewan (who is doing some mighty cool research, in my rather biased opinion), tacked the question from a different angle. He argued city charters are about semantics, symbols, substance and significance. He spoke to the historic symbolism of charters, as the earliest form of urban authority in Canada, extended from the Crown to communities dating back over 300 years. He argued modern city charters should start with a serious conversation about what the purpose of the charter is, and not conflating some of the core concepts related to governance and power. Garcea brings the perspective of experience, as a past chair of municipal legislation review processes in Saskatchewan. He warned that cities need to “be careful what they wish for” and consider the impacts of any new powers or revenue tools for cities on the rest of their provinces. “If we’re doing something for one unit, one city, we need to make sure it’s not at the cost of the whole.”

The final speaker was Andrew Sancton, a leading Canadian local government scholar who has written extensively on the topic and has been involved in many city-specific conversation about charters. Sancton stated decisively that city charters in Canada have been mostly symbolic. He illustrated this point by speaking to how cities sometimes want what other cities have, pointing to examples of mutual envy between Montreal and Toronto. He explored the larger underlying questions: the open debate about what services are most appropriately provided by cities; the extent to which the public and provincial governments trust municipal politicians to take on greater responsibility; the extraordinary political challenge of actually implementing new municipal taxes when not accompanied by reduced taxes for other levels of government. In Sancton’s words, “I think there is a way through this dilemma, and that is to reconceptualize our provinces as urban authorities.” He spoke to the important role of provinces in urban issues, citing the example of the Greater Golden Horseshoe, home to approximately three-quarters of Ontario’s population, and the Ontario Government’s involvement in nearly every big urban issue in the territory. He tackled Broadbent’s point about municipalities paying too much attention to issues like bike lanes and doggie parks, arguing that these are important matters which affect people’s lives. “The details of city life are important. And that’s why municipalities are important.”

A benefit of academic conference sessions is the level of expertise in the audience. The group did not disappoint, raising key governance, legal, political and ideological questions for the panel and for one another. And as with most of these sessions, one leaves with more questions than answers.

How much power and autonomy should cities have? There probably isn’t a single answer for this – and why should there be? Canada doesn’t have a system of local government; we have systems of local government which have evolved over time in our provinces. Local government today is marked by its diversity, presenting what is potentially both its greatest challenge and strongest asset. Conversations about city charters are important because they bring key questions about urban governance and local leadership to the forefront, forcing us to confront the very nature of our political system. I’m thankful to each of the panelists and organizers for keeping this conversation going.