National Post (Latest Edition)
Mayors ‘deserve stronger powers,’ Ford wrote in book
Preferable to ‘free-for-all’ councils
Doug Ford wants Ontario municipalities to have the same kind of strong-mayor system as many big cities in the U.S., saying a more powerful chief magistrate would be preferable to the “free-for-all” of current councils.
The suggestion is outlined in the book Ford wrote about his time at Toronto city hall, published 18 months ago and largely forgotten since he entered provincial politics in February.
“If I ever get to the provincial level of politics, municipal affairs is the first thing I would want to change,” the Progressive Conservative leader says. “I think mayors across the province deserve stronger powers. One person in charge, with veto power, similar to the strong mayoral systems in New York and Chicago and L.A.”
Ford hasn’t raised the issue during his campaign for Ontario’s June 7 election, but a PC spokeswoman suggested such change is still on his agenda, saying the leader favours reforms to make municipal government more efficient and effective.
But it is a controversial idea, with some experts saying strong mayors could streamline and unify decision-making in large cities like Toronto, others warning it would create more autocratic, top-down local governments.
“I think it would be a very bad move,” says Myer Siemiatycki, a politics professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “What Doug’s formula would lead to is a mayor who had no incentive to compromise, who basically ran the city on the basis of ‘My way or the highway.’ “
And strong mayors certainly don’t guarantee successful government in big American centres, he said, citing New York’s crumbling subway system and problems with policing in various locales south of the border.
The mayor in those U.S. cities is head of the executive branch, typically with the authority to introduce budgets, hire senior city administrators and veto council decisions.
There’s debate about whether Canada has the opposite — “weak mayors” — but generally the role here involves appointing committee chairs, influencing policy and exerting other types of soft power, while having the same vote on issues as other members of council.
The Tory leader’s book, Ford Nation: Two Brothers, One Vision documented the four years when his late brother Rob was Toronto mayor and he was a councillor. He complains that mayors of all political stripes have been stymied by councillors in the city, with no party discipline or allegiance to anyone but themselves.
“It’s just a free-for-all, with each one of these independent contractors pushing their own agenda,” Ford wrote, though his years on council are most remembered for the chaos caused by Rob’s drug and alcohol use.
For most smaller municipalities, where the mayor is a part-time official and the administration is run by a paid chief administrator, strong mayors don’t make sense, said Andrew Sancton, a political science professor at Western University.
But for bigger cities, he does favour a system where the mayor is head of the executive branch, with a separation of powers like that in the U.S. federal government between the president and Congress.
“It makes it clear that it is the mayor who’s in charge of the civic bureaucracy,” said Sancton. “Most ordinary people think that’s (already) the case, but the problem is it’s not — the civic bureaucracy is answerable to the entire council … It gives the mayor more authority to organize things the way he wants, which I think is important.”
Meanwhile there is debate about just how powerless Canadian mayors really are.
Their authority is more “nuanced and complex” than the “weak” label suggests, concluded Western PhD student Kate Graham in doctoral-thesis research on the topic.
Siemiatycki said mayors in cities such as Toronto actually have more sway than the provincial Municipal Act lays out, such as the ability to appoint councillors to key positions and offer other incentives.
“There is soft power and there are a few carrots to be dangled, and lo and behold the mayor gets his way.”