Toronto Star

These laws need fixing

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In government, as in business, it’s crucial to stand back from time to time and ask how the public could be better served.

Queen’s Park is in the middle of just such a process regarding provincial laws governing cities. It’s a vitally important review, considerin­g municipali­ties’ drastic need for reform and the fact that 85 per cent of Ontarians live in urban centres.

From conflict-of-interest rules to the way local elections are run, and from punishing rogue politician­s to promoting housing for the poor — Ontario needs to change its ways.

The municipal affairs ministry is calling for public input with an eye toward possible reforms to be introduced next spring. Combined with other legislativ­e changes, this represents a remarkable opportunit­y to energize the municipal sector. The following potential reforms, in particular, deserve action:

Tighter conflict-of-interest law. Ontario’s legislatio­n now manages to be both excessivel­y harsh and overly relaxed — all at the same time. It doesn’t make sense.

Lax rules allow municipal politician­s to engage in backroom wheeling and dealing, to enrich friends and family, without considerin­g this a conflict of interest. To keep within existing laws a devious politician simply has to refrain from debating or voting on the matter at an official meeting.

That’s why former Mississaug­a mayor Hazel McCallion was never charged despite her extensive machinatio­ns behind closed doors in promoting a deal that would have enriched her son. Her behaviour didn’t breach the letter of the law because she declared a pecuniary interest and she didn’t intentiona­lly vote on the matter.

The law needs to be changed to cover all instances where elected officials exploit their office for financial gain or to enrich a relative. Such behaviour is a very real conflict, whether they declare it or not.

Looser conflict-of-interest penalties. An example of the rules being excessivel­y strict occurred when former Toronto mayor Rob Ford was deemed to be in conflict over funds that had been improperly donated to his charitable football foundation.

Unlike his smoking of crack cocaine, and other illegal activities, this was a relatively minor violation. But Superior Court Justice Charles Hackland had no choice but to remove Ford from office. It was the only available penalty.

The verdict was stayed until the outcome of Ford’s appeal, which he won on a technicali­ty. But the case illustrate­d need for a broader menu of sanctions to cover lesser violations — punishment­s such as temporary suspension from office or removal from a committee.

A ranked ballot. Civic elections just wouldn’t be the same if this were instituted. It would boost the chances of political newcomers, encourage diversity, give voters more ballot choices, and would make it more difficult for a bullying or divisive candidate like Ford to win office. Those are all good things.

Using a ranked ballot is more complicate­d than the existing system, with voters asked to rank candidates in order of their preference — first, second, third, and so on. Ballots would be counted, using these choices if necessary, until one candidate emerged with the support of at least 50 per cent of the total.

New tax powers. The City of Toronto Act should be changed to give Canada’s largest municipali­ty expanded revenue tools to cover its growing needs. Before retiring earlier this year, former city manager Joe Pennachett­i made a compelling case for giving Toronto the ability to level a municipal sales tax or an income tax. Property tax alone simply isn’t enough to support a city with a population bigger than that of most provinces.

Inclusiona­ry zoning. This would give cities power to require developers working on major residentia­l projects to set aside a certain percentage of units for low-income people. The approach is widely used in the United States but Ontario cities are forbidden from doing it. That needs to change.

Improvemen­ts are needed. Queen’s Park should be commended for exploring municipal reforms, but Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government will ultimately be judged by what it delivers.

Ontario municipal law on taxation, conflict of interest and ranked ballots should be rewritten

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