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COLUMN: Strong mayor makes a weakness for some politicians

Some mayors who said they wouldn’t use powers have flip-flopped, political columnist explains

For some municipal politicians in Ontario, the urge to grab the shiny bauble of “strong mayoral powers” has proven too much to resist.

Mississauga mayor-elect Carolyn Parrish is the latest to do so, firing the community’s top official, the chief administrative officer, along with other top staff soon after she was sworn into office last month following her bonus to replace Bonnie Crombie, who resigned after being elected leader of the Ontario Liberal Party.

That was despite telling CBC News during the campaign that she “would try not to use strong mayoral powers. I think the power of persuasion and general good solid politics is much stronger.”

Turns out it took less than a week before she apparently threw up her hands in frustration and decided to go a different route.

The strong mayoral powers were introduced under Premier Doug Ford in 2022. Initially, they were only given to the province’s largest cities: Toronto and Ottawa.

But beginning in 2023, they expanded to dozens of others. So far, 49 municipalities have been offered the extra powers, which allow mayors to propose housing-related bylaws and pass them with the support of only a third of councillors, instead of a majority, as well as allowing mayors to override some bylaws. prepare the city’s budget and, as we saw in Mississauga, fire many key people, assuming it’s in the name of furthering provincial political goals.

The Ford government’s stated goal of this increased force was to get more houses built faster, although it may be worth pointing out that starts across the province have declined over the past two years. In fact, the province has failed to meet its housing targets every month since the initiative was announced, which would suggest the problem may lie elsewhere.

Opponents of strong mayoral powers have called them undemocratic, because they allow bills to be passed with the support of a minority in the council, and dangerous, because they can lead senior staff to tell mayors what they want to hear for fear of being fired. There was also criticism of the provincial bill’s vagueness, which gave council chiefs the ability to kill bylaws that “could potentially interfere with a prescribed provincial priority.”

The province took the usual route to get municipalities to buy into its plan: bribing them with their own money. Specifically, those who agree to the strong mayoral powers receive extra funding from Queen’s Park, courtesy of the taxpayer.

Mayors of all political stripes proved unable to resist. Parrish in Mississauga is a former Liberal MP. Kevin Ashe, Pickering’s mayor and a former Progressive Conservative provincial candidate, used his strong mayoral powers to take control of the municipality’s budget process, contrary to a promise he made in the last municipal election. And former Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who had said she favored a “collaborative approach” when asked about using strong mayoral powers, had a readjustment after being elected mayor of Hamilton. In March, she used her new veto power to overturn the council’s decision not to build affordable housing on two car parks.

To their credit, some mayors and municipalities have said “no” to strong mayoral powers. Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin, a former head of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, has been vocal in her opposition and was quoted as saying, “Our current council structure serves the best interests of our residents and allows for meaningful community engagement.” She was eventually given the powers by the province but, to my knowledge, has not used them except for routine approval of bylaws.

In Barrie, Alex Nuttall was asked about using strong mayoral powers during the 2022 election campaign. His somewhat vague answer: “My vision for Barrie is to have a council that works together and works.”

Asked again by Bradford today and InnisfilToday subsidiaries Barrie Today when he was given the strong mayoral powers he offered a bit of a non-committal word salad.

“As we move forward, you know, I think it’s solid when she goes — a collaborative council and, you know, some of the strong mayoral powers are legislative in the sense that there’s no choice, it’s going to affect how we do business, and some of them are obviously a choice for the mayor when and how to implement them.”

In any event, Nuttall has not used them so far, apart from routine approval of bylaws.

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