By Catherine Porter
TORONTO – The new premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, announced Friday that he intended to reduce the size of Toronto’s elected government by nearly half, less than three months before the municipal election.
The surprise move electrified the city, with many declaring it a blow to democracy because the changes affected the City Council, which had recently been expanded after almost four years of consultations, debate, a vote by the council that even the mayor lost and two legal challenges – both unsuccessful.
It also threw the coming election into disarray, as campaigning has already begun.
The premier, who has the power to make the move for Toronto, the capital of Ontario, said it was in line with his campaign promises to reduce the size and cost of government.
“No one has ever said to me, ‘Doug, we need more politicians,’” Ford said at a news conference Friday morning at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto. “In fact it’s been the opposite. We have too many politicians making it harder to get things done, making it harder to get things built.”
But it was another clear flexing of muscles by the new right-wing, populist premier, who is known to relish a fight and to rule from his gut.
Just weeks into his job, Ford has declared open war on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by opposing his government’s plan to address climate change and declaring the surge of incoming refugee claimants – most of whom settle in Ontario, the largest Canadian province – as the federal government’s sole problem and responsibility.
Now he has turned to Toronto, where he was himself a city councilor for four years, and the right-hand man to his brother, Rob Ford, who claimed dubious fame as Toronto’s “crack smoking mayor,” and who died in 2016.
Ontario’s opposition leader, Andrea Horwath, called the move “chilling” and a “backroom plot.”
“It’s clear that Mr. Ford wants a smaller number of councilors to have more power, fewer checks and balances, and less accountability,” Horwath, leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, said in a statement. “This is obviously a move to make it easier for the premier to control Toronto City Hall.”
Many Toronto politicians reacted with anger and shock, given that the election campaign was underway and that Ford never raised the issue during his own election campaign.
“What we don’t need and what I just can’t support is change being rammed down our throats without a single second of public consultation and on top of that done in the middle of the election period itself,” said Mayor John Tory, who discovered the plans from a news report Thursday night and is calling for a referendum on the matter.
“You don’t change the rules in the middle of the game,” he said. “That is not right and that is not fair.”
Toronto is the biggest metropolis in Canada and the fourth largest in North America, with 2.7 million residents and cranes jutting up all over its downtown core to build condominiums for many more.
The City Council is renowned for unwieldy and circular debates, and offers the mayor only one vote – which greatly frustrated both Ford and his brother, who were unable to gather the votes for many of their promises, particularly a subway expansion into the east of the city.
So the announcement to reduce the 47 seats to 25 took on a distinctive personal flavor, with Ford punishing his former opponents at Toronto’s City Hall, particularly given that the proposed changes affect no other cities in the large province.
While the premier and Toronto’s mayor are both political conservatives, they were adversaries for the mayoralty in 2014, when Ford stepped into his brother’s place on the ballot after Rob Ford was found to have a rare form of cancer that proved terminal. Tory won the election handily.
“I was down at city hall for four years,” Ford said at the news conference. “I was there when we’d take 10 hours to made a decision. It is the most dysfunctional political arena in the country.”
He added, “The only politicians that are concerned are the ones that are going to lose their job.”
The move would save taxpayers $19.1 million (25 million Canadian dollars), Ford said proudly. That is a driblet in the city’s mammoth operating budget of $8.5 billion (11.1 billion Canadian dollars).
But the potential political and symbolic benefits are plentiful, particularly as many voters outside of Toronto resent the attention the big city receives.
“It plays to the conservative notion that too many politicians exist and that politicians waste money,” said Martin Horak, an associate professor of political science at Western University in London, Ontario.
In Canada, cities do not have charters. They remain constitutionally the children of provinces, which can decide to make changes to their structure and powers. The Ontario government forced Toronto to expand geographically in 1998, absorbing six nearby boroughs, while cutting the number of politicians to 45, including the mayor, from more than 100.
“We’ve been debating this for the last 20 years,” said Frances Nunziata, a former ally of Rob Ford’s, and one of a dozen right-wing city councilors who applauded the premier’s announcement Friday.
Nunziata also said, “You could never get councilors to support eliminating their job.”
The election is set for Oct. 22, and the deadline for submitting nomination papers was Friday afternoon. But the province’s new municipal affairs and housing minister said the deadline would be extended to Sept. 14 – enough time, presumably, for Ford’s team to find its own candidates to enter the race.
If Toronto’s City Council is reduced to just 25 seats, it will be only slightly larger than that of Ottawa’s, the nation’s capital, which is a third the size of Toronto, with about 934,000 people, but has 23 councilors.
“City Hall needs to be responsive to diverse populations and parts of Toronto,” said Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics at Ryerson University in Toronto, in an email.
“Having fewer elected councilors will make City Hall more remote and top-down for residents,” Siemiatycki said.