Does Toronto need a "strong mayor"?

Toronto Mayor John Tory wants to take Premier Doug Ford up on his offer to create "strong mayors." Tory (like most mayors) would like to have more power -- and who can blame him. The public expect their Mayors to be able to take swift action, particularly in times of crisis, and our system of local government doesn't often work that way.

But before we start ripping up the City of Toronto Act or Ontario's Municipal Act, perhaps we should first understand what the term "strong mayor" actually means.

The terms "strong mayor" and "weak mayor" come from the United States. In the US, "strong mayor" refers to a specific governing arrangement where the mayor has executive authority separate and apart from Council. Think Kelsey Grammar in the TV show Boss. Kelsey plays Chicago Mayor Tom Kane and he's the archetype American strong mayor: he controls the city's budget; he can hire and fire staff; he's in charge of the delivery of public services; he doesn't attend Council meetings, but when he does, he has the ability to veto their decisions. He is, literally, The Boss.

We don't have this kind of "strong mayor" in Canada. We don't even have the system of government (mayor-council) where you would find a "strong mayor" in the first place.

(I would also argue that we don't have "weak mayors" or a "weak mayor system" in Canada, but that's a separate argument. Even American cities are using this term less often. As an American City Manager told me, "we don't really say 'weak mayor' anymore. Mayors don't like it. We say 'strong council.'")

Unless you're an urban politics fiend or governance wonk, you probably don't care to know more about forms of local government in the US or in Canada. Trust me, it's a rabbit hole that's hard to escape.

Here's the important point: any City Council in Canada can empower (or disempower) their Mayor. Yes, read it again. Any. City. Council. Council could delegate the ability to make certain decisions to the Mayor. Council could give the Mayor a large budget and unilateral ability to spend it. Council could pass a procedure by-law enabling the Mayor to choose committee members and make appointments. I could go on.

I am not in favour of the "strong mayor" model, nor do I think Premier Doug Ford should get to decide how governance in the City of Toronto works (and if Premier Kathleen Wynne had tried this while Doug's brother Rob was Mayor of Toronto, I'm betting Doug would have lost his mind). This feeds a paternalistic style of provincial-municipal relations that doesn't work, particularly in Canada's largest cities.

I remain hopeful that Ontario's new provincial government will seek to empower local governments -- not control them.

To Mayor Tory: you may well need more power in order to do the things that the citizens of Toronto expect of you. My PhD research examined the power of Canadian mayors, and as it turns out, you're in the middle of the pack. The Mayors in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Montreal have more power than you do. As the Mayor of Canada's largest city, you may need few more levers to help you get things done. But, let this be a discussion with your Council and your community. Cities need to have informed conversations about their own governance, and this conversation is well underway in Toronto already. Don't turn to Queen's Park or rip up the City of Toronto Act quite yet. That's a step backwards, not just for Toronto but for all Canadian cities.




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