Councillor Josh Matlow

Toronto Star: Transit City flap raises prickly question: What power does Toronto’s mayor have?

January 30, 2012


Mayor Rob Ford says he has the authority to unilaterally kill Transit City. His opponents on council and now an independently commissioned municipal lawyer say he was out of bounds.


“Nowhere was it written that the mayor has authority to unilaterally create transit policy for the City of Toronto,” says centrist Josh Matlow.


Ford ally Denzil Minnan-Wong responds that the authority of the “mayor’s mandate” was widely used during the David Miller regime, and it’s appropriate that Ford is using it now.


For his part, Ford is sticking to his guns: “I did what the taxpayers want. They want subways. That’s it.”


So who is right? Exactly how much power does the mayor have to make executive decisions?


These are the questions being pondered in circles at city hall this week, as a campaign to resurrect Miller’s light rail transit vision gains momentum and concerns about how to pay for Ford’s subway plan grow.


Former mayoral candidate George Smitherman perhaps gave the best explanation of the mayor’s power at a debate just weeks before the election: “The office has the powers of persuasion.”


Those opposed to Ford’s transit vision say the protocols are black and white: Council is supreme.


“The mayor’s plan has to come to council for approval,” said left-wing Councillor Adam Vaughan. “He’s always known that. We’ve always known that. And we’ve just been waiting. No mayor has dictatorial matter. Never has. Never will.”


But as Smitherman noted, the real power is the office itself. Clever political politicking can stick-handle around council. The fact that Ford’s transit vision is unraveling has more to do with his approval rating than protocol.


His subway plan was already being implemented — without council’s okay.


“I think it’s fair to say that money was redirected from certain initiatives to other initiatives,” said TTC chair Karen Stintz, who later said it is up to council to decide whether it was wrong for that to happen without its consent. She expects council will deal with the issue in March.


Minnan-Wong said, “The concept of the mayor’s mandate is an accepted convention adopted over the last seven years of David Miller,” adding that Transit City only came to council in “bits and pieces” in the first place.


The broader vision was approved under a strategy for dealing with climate change. The environmental assessments did come to council, and a budget to pay for the technology also came to the chamber, but there was no all-encompassing plan vote.


At his weekly weigh-in Monday morning, Ford reiterated the mandate mantra.


“I didn’t overstep my boundaries; I did what the taxpayers want,” he said. “They don’t want streetcars. I was out in Scarborough over the weekend; people came up to me and said they want subways. That’s it.”


One of Ford’s first acts as mayor was to declare Transit City dead and to indicate he wanted to put that $8.4 billion worth of provincial transit funding toward subway expansion. Council’s left wing revolted.


There were protests, petitions and political buttons printed to Save Transit City. But not much more came of it.


With Ford coasting on a tide of public support, he secured a memorandum of understanding with the province and Metrolinx to proceed with scrapping most of the Transit City plans.


As per its agreement, Metrolinx ordered the TTC to stop working on non-Ford-approved projects and Ford agreed the city would reimburse Metrolinx for work done on Miller’s plan. TTC manager Gary Webster later revealed that the cost of cancelling Transit City was around $65 million.


Municipal lawyer Freya Kristjanson, who was hired by left-winger Joe Mihevc, has concluded that decision was unlawful.


“Toronto has a weak-mayor, strong-council system of municipal governance. This means that the power of the city resides in city council. The mayor has very little independent authority unless it is specifically delegated to him by council,” said Kristjanson, who was counsel to Mayor Hazel McCallion during the Mississauga Judicial Inquiry. (A city spokesperson said the city’s legal staff were still reviewing the opinion Monday and weren’t ready to respond.)


But it really comes down to whether there is a political appetite to challenge Ford. Last March, there wasn’t. This January — following a bruising 10-month budget debate that has shifted the balance of power to the centre — there is.


“Is there a sense of timing? Of course there is. So what?” conceded Mihevc. And as for the mayor’s mandate argument, Mihevc said a mandate is just a “wish list.”


“Legislatively, each councillor has a mandate. The city has official plan policies. Departments have departmental goals. And the mayor has his mandate. How do all of these things get reconciled? Through council. The art of politics is the combine all of these mandates into a coherent platform for the city.”


Reached Monday afternoon, Metrolinx president Bruce McCuaig noted that the March agreement clearly stated it was “non-binding” and that the plan was to be “subject to the approval of their respective governing bodies.”


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