Councillor Josh Matlow

Why this Liberal leadership hopeful is making a case for charter cities

By John Michael McGrath

Why this Liberal leadership hopeful is making a case for charter cities

OTTAWA – The Liberal leadership race has been reasonably satisfying from a policy-wonk perspective so far. Just this month, front-runner Steven Del Duca pledged to introduce an expanded safety net for workers, and Alvin Tedjo promised to implement a universal basic income. This week, at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario’s annual convention, in Ottawa, MPP Michael Coteau added another idea to the mix: in a letter to the AMO president, Jamie McGarvey, he proposed a “New Deal for Ontario’s municipalities.”

“The reality is that municipalities are not set up for success,” Coteau told Monday. “We need to have a new conversation around the relationship between municipalities and the province.”

Coteau’s new deal has three parts: a “fresh relationship” that abandons the perspective that municipalities are merely creatures of the province; a new “who does what” consultation to assess whether some municipal and provincial responsibilities should be redistributed (potentially by uploading some of the costly jobs cities currently do); and the creation of charter cities in Ontario law.

“The province and AMO should undertake to look openly at options to devolve responsibility for various governance matters — including land-use planning, revenue, and legislative authority — to our large urban municipalities,” Coteau’s letter reads.

There are some interesting language choices here: “large urban municipalities” has a standard meaning — cities with a population of more than 100,000 belong to the Large Urban Mayors’ Caucus of Ontario; there are currently 28 of them. (The chair of LUMCO, Guelph mayor Cam Guthrie, was copied on Coteau’s letter.) So Coteau is thinking beyond just the City of Toronto, which currently has its own legislation and some special taxing powers that other Ontario municipalities lack.

“It’s very different from the Toronto act. That was a calculated decision by Doug Ford to make those changes,” Coteau said of the government’s decision to halve Toronto city council in the middle of the election campaign. “I think it would be a lot more difficult for Doug Ford to do that to the province as a whole.”

Then there’s the word “devolved”: through his mention of charter cities (a topic of discussion by no means limited to the Liberal leadership race), Coteau is explicitly invoking the process in the United Kingdom that has seen political power shifted from Westminster to elected assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Importantly, that process has relied on legislation that can be (and has been) reversed or modified by different British governments.

Coteau says the same approach could be applied in Ontario.

“Nothing’s ever guaranteed when it can be changed through provincial legislation, but I think there are certain things with so much expectations in society that we maintain the course,” Coteau says. “When you look at the U.K., there are expectations about local government set that I don’t think any prime minister would go back and try to make massive changes.”

He cites such examples as full-day kindergarten and the historic expansion of Catholic and French-language school services in Ontario: either could be partially reversed if a government were truly committed to doing so — but both will almost certainly remain untouched, because citizens have come to expect them.

The 2006 City of Toronto Act (which restored Toronto city council’s right to set its own number of councillors after the last Tory government took it away in 1999) is actually older than full-day kindergarten, which was implemented after the Liberals won re-election in 2007. It’s about as old as the Greenbelt, another Liberal accomplishment the Tories have found it politically painful to revise. If the passage of time had, in fact, established the expectation that the province should defer to municipalities, then Toronto should have had some measure of protection from last year’s legislation — but it didn’t. (The Progressive Conservative government also interfered in the democratic elections for regional chairs in other municipalities, though that happened more recently.)

As I’ve written before, the only way to truly bind the hand of the legislature is through a constitutional amendment. That said, while Ford was happy to wreak havoc on Toronto’s 2018 election because of his deep-seated belief that the voters of Toronto don’t deserve the same level of democratic representation as other cities around the province, he hasn’t yet stripped the city of its additional taxing powers, even though he railed against them when he was a city councillor. Why not? Because doing so would plunge the province’s largest city into financial chaos — and that would necessitate either massive property tax increases or a bailout from the Queen’s Park. The Ford government may not be willing to subject itself to that kind of financial and political pain.

By extending the idea of charter cities to all larger municipalities and wrapping it up in a broader conversation about responsibilities and taxing powers, Coteau’s proposal could end up offering protection even to those municipal powers that don’t have the force of the Constitution behind them.

Make it politically painful to upset the municipal apple cart, and maybe Ford’s successors will be a bit more cautious.

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