On Friday, July 27th, Doug Ford personally surprised the entire province of Ontario with the sudden announcement that he and his PC government would be taking immediate steps to drastically reduce the Toronto City Council in size, less than three months before an election. Since Friday, the Ontario PCs have introduced legislative amendments to begin the process.
As of current, the Toronto City Council stands at 44 seats, with each councillor representing a ward made up of anywhere between 45,000 and 75,000 constituents. The city was slated to redistrict after the October election to 47 seats — in order to accommodate for an increase in population size — but with Ford’s surprise announcement, it looks like the City of Toronto may be headed towards “amalgamation 2.0”, which would result in the number of seats being reduced to just 25. A full list of “Ward Profiles” for 2018 can be found here.
The proposal to reshuffle a city of three million is already a tall order, and that’s not including the extremely limited timeline and the degree to which the council would be rearranged. Effectively what Ford has proposed is an extreme and unwarranted reduction to the municipal government of Canada’s largest city, based not on research or data but instead based on a personal grudge. Most importantly however, it looks like a sneaky attempt at diverting attention from everything else Ford did last week.
The idea to reduce the Toronto City Council comes after the deadline to register to run as a candidate, after literal years of consultation and research, and over 20 months after the decision was made to move to a 47-ward system. The plan also came literally the same day as City Council voted to refuse over $300 million in unnecessary corporate welfare, and comes after years of budget surpluses under the current council, including $292 million in 2012, one in 2017 of over $100 million, and surpluses in the operating budget every single year since 2011.
How is it then that the Tories have accused the city of wasting provincial funds, not getting things done, and employing too many councillors? The facts remain that only 17% of the total Toronto budget comes from the province at all, and only $23 million (0.0017%) is set aside for the operating budget, which comes from the final city budget of $13 billion. The proposal would only save $25 million over four years, which would hardly make a dent in the budget at all, and that’s coupled with the damage such a sudden restructuring would cost from transitional staff and resources, new employee payrolls, the redesign of council chambers and offices, and more.
“Reducing the size of Toronto City Council is estimated to save Toronto taxpayers more than $25.5 million over four years,” says the Ford government’s news release. That works out to about 1/20th of 1% of Toronto’s $11.12 billion annual operating budget”CBC’s Mike Crawley on Twitter
The reasoning for the announcement appears extremely politically motivated, as it comes immediately after Ontario’s Minister of Health and Long-Term Care decided to cut $335 million from Ontario’s annual mental health funding. It goes without saying that gutting mental health funding is bad optics for the PCs, partly because they vowed to increase it by $200 million annually in their platform. It is especially bad however, because one of Canada’s worst mass casualty attacks just took place in Toronto last weekend, and it was was done at the hands of an individual with severe psychosis and other mental health disorders.
The proposal to slash the Toronto City Council also comes right after the Tory government made a last-minute decision this week to allow marijuana to be sold by private retailers, rather than through the “Ontario Cannabis Store,” or OCS, a planned body of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).
A year ago, selling weed through private business was only viewed favourable by 32% of respondents in a Forum Research poll, whereas 50% supported the Liberals’ OCS model. Even Ford has been walking on eggshells around this topic, telling reporters in June about regulated sales through the OCS that “This is a road that we have to tread carefully,” also saying “…My priority is to make sure we protect the children. That’s a number-one priority.”
“What I said is I’d be focusing on the LCBO.” — Doug Ford
Ford has been cautious (and inconsistent) around the marijuana issue, which is understandable when you consider who, exactly, comprises most of the Progressive Conservative Party’s voter base. How exactly does the typical Conservative Party member feel about weed? Do Dave and Martha, lifetime PC voters from Parry Sound who go to their cottage every other weekend and love cross-country skiing, really want weed sold at their local Loblaws?
You may not have asked those questions, but the strategists and advisors for the Conservative Party certainly did. It’s why they remained largely silent on the issue during their own leadership race, and is why they haven’t made any movements regarding the policy until this week, when they suddenly dropped their private market shift and then promptly threw Toronto under the bus.
By creating this new Toronto City Council scandal out of thin air, Doug Ford has effectively diverted attention, and more importantly outrage, away from really important policy decisions that should absolutely be front-page news. It’s straight out of the Trump playbook, and it’s incredibly genius.
While Ford’s loudest and most prominent supporters are eating up this story, whether they be his constituents or in the media, the PC majority government is getting away with a horrifying scandal and a progressive policy that would otherwise be a scandal to a lot of tried-and-true Conservative Party voters. Now that attention has successfully been diverted, Ford and his party are playing offence instead of defence, positioning themselves so that they can control the narrative and smother tons of negative media coverage. It’s an undeniably smart and clever move, if not shameless and deceitful.
After speaking briefly with MPP for Toronto-Danforth Peter Tabuns, it seems like the Conservatives will attempt to go all the way with this proposal, as evidenced by their Monday-introduction of legislative amendments that would trigger the downsizing of the council. Though the legislation has yet to be passed, receive royal assent, and then face any court challenge afterward, it looks like it has a high chance of success. After that, it’s unclear whether or not the federal or municipal governments will challenge it, or if groups like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association will sue the province.
In response to the move, Toronto Mayor John Tory and the rest of the City Council will be ramping up their fight by voting on motions for a referendum and for legal action to be taken by the City’s lawyer. Councillor Joe Cressy, Mike Layton and others have quickly taken a stance against the province, but experts have warned that action from the municipal level may be pointless.
Not only is the move to slash Toronto City Council ridiculous, at least within the proposed timeframe, but it is also dripping with partisanship. At a press conference with six other councillors who support the Province’s new plan, Giorgio Mammoliti — a right-wing city councillor and Ford-ally — said: “There’s going to be less left-leaning politicians in the City of Toronto. That means it’s a great thing.” A dozen other councillors, all in lockstep with Ford, seem to be agreed in this sentiment, and that’s (obviously) not a healthy sentiment for those responsible with policy-making on our behalf.
“There’s going to be less left-leaning politicians in the City of Toronto and that means it’s a great thing and it’s a great day for the taxpayer.” — Giorgio Mammoliti
At the time of writing, the City of Toronto seems like it will be continuing as planned with its 47-ward election until further notice. On Monday, councillors held their last meeting until August 20, which is when an emergency council session will be held regarding the issue. Anything that happens afterward is anyone’s guess.
One thing that is for sure though, is that this so-called efficiency — the miracle that Ford says will come by halving the City of Toronto — does not, has not, and will not ever exist. Cutting the city in half, especially in this timeframe, would cause enough damage that leaving the city as-is would save just as much. What halving the City will do however, is double the constituents that councillors are responsible for, which is just bad news for everybody.
If you’re a resident of the City of Toronto, cutting council in half will mean community fundraisers and local events will more often lack a local representative. It will mean that petitions for speed humps on local streets will take twice as long to process. It will mean that when serious complaints come in, the local councillor’s office may not return calls, or will leave it too late. It will mean that existing constituency databases could get overwhelmed.
Bottom line, cutting the City of Toronto in half will make the city less local, less accountable, and less democratic. Councillors will be less accountable to their constituents, less focused on the “little guy” in their community, and less aware of their grassroots. Councillors will care less about the homeless in their communities, or certain areas that they think they can snub because now they have new areas to court voters from. Ignoring the fact that Toronto will be disproportionately represented by the social and economic right-wing, the urgent downsizing of Ontario’s largest city will be costly and complicated, not to mention completely counter-intuitive.
While right-wing columnists are raving about this so-called victory, and while the institution of Toronto City Hall is being prepped for its painful erosion, just remember that it’s all happening as Doug Ford and his PC Party get away with scandals that would otherwise be making front-page news for days.
It’s the beginning of August. They’re just getting started.