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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

POLL: Should the mayor have more power?

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Old City Hall council chambers, 1951

The independent fiscal review panel that Mayor David Miller put together to provide the city with advice on how to balance its books has recommended a stronger mayor system, and ever since, newspapers and blogs have been all aflutter debating the pros and cons of such a change.

Yesterday, Eye Weekly, in its editorial, came out in support of giving Toronto’s mayor more power. On its side is Mayor Miller himself, Premier Dalton McGuinty, some of Miller’s critics (including Denzil Minnan-Wong), and, of course, the panel of experts, which includes business leaders, academics, and labour professionals.

My colleagues at Eye raise some good points. From the editorial:

Critics of the so-called “strong mayor system” (which is already the norm in large American cities) express concerns about “democracy.” These concerns are unfounded. Toronto’s mayor is directly elected by more voters than any other political official in Canada. If he doesn’t have a democratic mandate, who does?

Only the mayor runs on a platform that presents a vision for the entire city; only the mayor can consider every corner of the city as his constituency. It is ridiculous to give him no more authority than the local councillor for Etobicoke North, who gets elected on the strength of his ability to get potholes fixed at the end of his street and to whine about spending, and to call that democracy.

Eye argues that the way things work now “if Denzil Minnan-Wong, for example, were able to persuade a majority of councilors to back him, he could take over council’s agenda and govern as if he were mayor himself. So could any other councillor. That’s a problem.”

These are persuasive arguments, but there’s still something about the stronger mayor system that the panel proposed that doesn’t quite sit right with me. Others who’ve expressed similar concern include, Councillor Adam Vaughan, former Mayor (and former Eye Weekly columnist) John Sewell, and Mike Smith at NOW. I’ve been blogging on the issue on Eye Weekly’s city hall blog. Here’s a snippet from my first post:

The new powers proposed by the panel would make the Executive Committee resemble a sitting political party even more than it already does. Give its members more money and they’ll be forced to weigh standing up for their constituents against receiving that beefed up paycheque should they want to vote against the mayor on important matters.

You can read my second post, which is a bit more long and involved, here.

What Mayor Miller, the panel, and few others are talking about is that a stronger mayor system, at least the kind the panel has proposed, will likely lead to the emergence of political parties. Toronto Star columnist Royson James has acknowledged this, as has Toronto Life’s political columnist Philip Preville. “The more we talk about a stronger mayor,” writes Preville, “the more we’re going to have to talk about a party system.” I agree.

So let’s get the discussion going: Where do you stand on giving the mayor more power?



  1. Just because the Americans do it is not necessarily a reason to follow them – not because we don’t like them but simply because their political norms are not ours. Given the huge number of immigrants in Toronto it might be helpful to build in a more international perspective on mayoral powers (even strong mayors like London’s Ken Livingstone) but to not to discard lightly the political norms and traditions of Canada.

    As for political parties – it might be an improvement (although Vancouverites might argue that it’s certainly no panacea) but would it be as democratic? In Trinity Spadina last time would Helen Kennedy have had to fight for the NDP “nomination” or would she have been “appointed” by Olivia Chow just as Stephane Dion has been overriding local associations lately. Ironically an appointment might have cut short the acrimony and given her a better shot against Vaughan.

    We would also have to think about floor-crossing and whether a councillor would have to step down and run in a by-election, as in the furore over turncoats like David Emerson (ironically appointed over the riding association’s objections as a “star” candidate by Paul Martin).

  2. Eesh, I don’t know. It’s a tough call because I fear that, what would happen if somebody like Adam Vaughan became the Mayor?

  3. The problem with a strong mayor, is you need a mechanism in place to get rid of an incompetent idiot, given that mayors have a 4 year term. An incompetent mayor can do a lot of damage in 4 years.

    Now parties at city hall, I don’t think it’s a good idea, things are divided enough now by the technically erased but still very much present old city limits. Political parties will simply mean your councilor will be more concerned with what the party wants, then what the people want. Since different parties have different parts of the city where they have a lot of support, the party in power will be more concerned with it’s power base then the rest of the city.

    The city doesn’t need a new system, they need to fix the one they have, and a good place to start is better integration of city services across the old city borders.

  4. Kevin: you’d get the best mayor Toronto has had since Crombie.

    You’ll complain about having a few less clubs in the Ent. District and hang your hat on one comment Vaughan made (and retracted it) about considering to ask art supply store owners not sell super fat markers to young shitheads who want to put their lame-ass grafitti tags all over the place. You’ll bitch about the laneway fiasco from the 2006 election and continue to ignore the laneways under suggestion are actually considered priavte property (not every laneway in the city is city owned, BTW). Your complaints about Vaughan are based on a lack of sophisticated knowledge of the challenges faced by city councillors.

    But the city is much more complex than bubble machines and glow sticks. Be more concerned with having a mayor like John Nunziata or Karen Stintz.

  5. Too much ecstasy abuse does not make for good political analysis, but the glow sticks look good.

  6. Look everybody the toronto NDP party wants their cake and they want to eat it too.Amazing that in the last election NONE of this was discussed.Hey Toronto you voted for this now let them have the power,they won it fair and square.Or as Joe Pantalone put it “clean”….

    So much for transparency , or does the NDP party have the guts to wait for the next election and let the citizens decide, er I mean the legal voters decide.????

  7. It’s easy for Spacing readers, who I suspect are fairly friendly WRT the current mayor, to say we need a strong mayor system. I would think the response to this question would have been a little different had it been asked, say, 6 or 7 years ago, though.

  8. Those nuisances about Vaughan are indicative of the kind of person Vaughan is: a prohibitionist. The kind of person who believes that the solution to every social ill is to ban it.

    I can think of another politician, or actually another city council who is of the same conservative, prohibitionist ideology: in the past, Rudy Giuliani, and in the present, the current New York City council (especially speaker Christine Quinn and the much-hated Peter Vallone.)

    They must be models for Vaughan, and if you follow NYC politics you’ll have to agree. I really don’t think I have to spell out any more clearly why Vaughan is such a Giuliani-like character, but it’s plain to see that his “let’s make it illegal” attitude is just going to make criminals out of ordinary citizens.

    Give a prohibitionist like Adam Vaughan any more power and suddenly Toronto, like New York today, will cease to be interesting.

  9. Again, Kevin, you display any really lack of knowledge of what Vaughan does. He’s more lefty than some of the NDPers on a variety of issues. You just sound like a bitter boy who doesn’t want a few clubs to go ELSEWHERE in the city.

  10. Milo, I follow Adam Vaughan just as much as I follow other councillors at City Hall. Yes, I understand that sometimes he is quite progressive and I have praised him in the past for some of his accomplishments and positions. I am no NDP supporter, either, and I admire his independence. However, Vaughan seems to have inherited a number of quite conservative positions from his time as a news reporter, it seems, because sometimes he really wants to make things illegal.

    These issues are so much bigger than clubs. At one time or another, Adam Vaughan has supported:

    + Banning the sale of fireworks within the City of Toronto around Canada Day
    + Banning the sale of markers to minors
    + Banning the opening of any new nightclubs in the Entertainment District
    + Banning bottle service in Toronto
    + Gating alleys in Ward 20, including graffiti alley
    + Deploying CCTV cameras (which have been proven not to work and invade privacy)

    Normally Canadians are proud of the fact that Canada is so much freer than the United States, that it is not as conservative as the states, that it is not as much of a surveillance state, that it is not as much of a police state, that there is more “true liberty” here.

    The problem with all these positions is that Vaughan’s answer, like Giuliani’s answer to many similar problems, is “tougher legal enforcement.” Lock up the bad guys. Sounds like a law-and-order politician to me, and that is precisely the kind of politician Toronto *doesn’t* need as mayor.

  11. If we have a stronger mayor and 4 year terms then the mayoral election should be half way through the council term. It would create an almost referendum vibe every two years and could send a message to council and the mayor faster.

  12. I just figured it out — Kevin is the glowstick version of that self-defeating George Saw-something guy who posts here all the time.

    Rave on, Kevin.

  13. It’s unfair for blogging know-it-alls like ourselves to beat up on the mayor for lack of vision or leadership when there’s no apparatus in place for him to apply any vision or leadership. A problem for liberal minded people like us is that singular leadership seems too much like an abandonment of democracy, but on the other hand we deride the gridlock and slow progress of our current, properly democratic council.

    So what to do? For me the obvious answer to those that wish for drastic change is to empower one person to make it happen. Intelligent people can never expect a group of individuals to be able to agree on an issue like road tolls. You can’t have drastic change without ruffling feathers. Sometimes the feathers will be ours…remember Mike Harris? Sometimes however, the feathers will belong to our philosophical opponents…just ask those opposed to tolls and congestion tax in London. Those people probably called the Mayor a fascist…we chuckle smugly at their ignorance. What if we had a Mayor in favour of Gardiner Exp. tolls but who also despised nightclubs? Would we sell the nightclubs up the river? Yup. That’s the price of change.

    For every road toll, there’s a CCTV. For every parking tax, there are restrictions on the club district. The real conundrum for people in forums like there is that the only way to get what we want is to except things we don’t. Given singular visionary control of the city, who’s to say what kind of mayor David Miller would become. And to be against the notion of a stronger mayor because of Adam Vaughan or any one person is unfair, not only to person (as it assumes that you already know what a person would do with this purely hypothetical power) but is also ignores the equal likelihood that there’s a person our there that completely embodies the values of this site and the people for whom it’s written.

    As an after-thought to the concept on emulating other great cities, like NYC:
    I was in Manhattan last week and I continue to find the island extremely clean compared to Toronto (I’m comparing relative size); the cab system is modern and getting greener every day and the subway costs $0.75 less per ride than the TTC. When people say that Toronto shouldn’t emulate New York City, I agree. We might however try to emulate their cheaper transit fares, standardized taxi service and general civic pride.

  14. Oh…and a fractional, leaderless council virtually guarantees the formation of political alliances for the purposes of controlling the council. The formation of alliances will lead to the formalization of alliances…that means party politics at a council level.

    Can it be avoided with a stronger mayor? Probably not. Is it assured without one? Yup.

  15. Josh I guess you weren’t here during the last election.Then candidate for mayor Miller was opposed to toll roads and much more that is now being pushed by the undemocratic push to power.If the mayor feels that this is the right way to go let the people decide in a referendum or better still dissolve this government and go to election.Now that would take vision and guts.

    Intelligent people support the idea of promises made promises kept.Unfortunately Mike Harris promised and delivered, even then when people were warned about what Mike stood for they voted for his team.Here Miller and company lied to get elected now they are trying to implement what they didn’t have guts to stand behind during the election.Even the media feels like they were used( and they were).

  16. If we have to have parties can we please not have the NDP/Tories/Liberals but unaffiliated groupings? Basically all that affliated parties will ensure is that the City will have the “wrong” party in power in the view of one or both senior levels of government, and the tendency for council to be MP/MPP training wheels will accelerate.

  17. Alliances will form on council, but they won’t be as consistent and long-lived as a party system. Campaign organization and fund-raising are automatically easier for party-approved candidates, so I agree that the party executive will become, for some, the core constituency, with the population of the ward running second at best.

    And can’t you just imagine the griping in the press over the inevitable “minority council that can’t get anything done”?

    That said, parties are useful, and voting for a member of a philosophically stable party means that you’re saying something more than “I like Councillor X,” and the reasoning behind your vote is not left entirely to Councillor X’s imagination. But if the goal is just to give a definite mandate to council, maybe the solution is to run Swiss-style referenda rather than hoping that a party will spontaneously emerge that reflects our wishes.

  18. What I meant to say in my previous comment was that alliances form under the current, no-parties system, but that the party system would be much more solid, and then to carry on talking about what would happen under a party system. Alas, I used the same tense all the way through.

  19. The Mayor already has a great deal more power than past Mayors in the ability of he and his Executive Committee to control the agenda of Council. Instead of using this power responsibly he has alienated Council with his arbitrary ideological driven agenda and has lost the trust of the citizens of Toronto through no fault but his own. If he wants more power he must regain that trust and then run his next campaign on that platform. He should not be rewarded at this point for a failing grade.
    I would also like to make a point about the constant reference to the strong Mayor system in Chicago. Chicago is somehow seen to be a good solution it seems largely because Mayor Daley unilaterally tore down a waterfront Airport. Does no one do their homework and realize that Daley’s power is a manifestation of what has been shown again and again to be the most corrupt City in the States. Chicago and Cook County are run by a one Party Democratic Machine controlled by Daley who as his father before him is know locally as the “Mayor for Life.”
    If Mayor Miller wants more power let him get a democratic mandate where he clearly lays out his agenda to voters unlike his last “don’t worry, be happy” campaign that misrepresented the state of City finances and was followed by new taxes and fees to numerous to believe.

  20. George, I spoke of road tolls in the abstract, simply using it to illustrate the point that for every favourable action taken by a more powerful mayor, there would be an unfavourable one.

    That being said, I have a pretty good memory and I remember thinking it was reasonable for David Miller to distance himself from road tolls during the election. It’s a massive hot potato and not one really worth attempting to juggle unless you have the power to implement it. The Mayor made the mistake of taking on an issue above his pay-grade in his first victory when he turned opposition to the island airport into an attempted war against the Port Authority. Sure, the bridge was stopped (for now) and it would be a challenge to argue that the grander fight against the airport hasn’t been for not.

    Another thought on the issue of party politics in council. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I am in favour of them. I think we all know too well what happens when elected officials are equally, or more interested in the well-being of their party as they are in the well-being of their constituents. It seems to me that the idea of the more powerful mayor combined with slightly fewer councillors aided by constituent advisory groups seems a more positive model for the city then a politically aligned mayor and council.

  21. Harris delivered? Boy did he ever. But lets get real here…

    Harris never ran on a platform that said he would cut taxes by basically downloading everything and decimating the Education and Health Ministry…which is what he did.

    And right before he and his protégé were turfed from office I do believe they lied to the electorate about the state of the budget.

    THere was a reason they were turfed, it was because people started to see what his cuts really meant on the ground. Hardly a tenure worth defending.

  22. I really don’t think it’s as simple as a yes/no answer. As I’ve essentially already written, it’s a matter of implementation. What would the nature of the new powers be? What would the checks and balances be? How would Council ensure that community councils and neighbourhood organizations are given commensurate powers in their own realms?

    Political systems should be able to change. That’s necessary. But a balance needs to be maintained (or, maybe, established).

    I couldn’t vote yes or no on such a question right now, open-ended as it is. I’d want to see a concrete proposal first. But right now I err toward skeptical. All power is abused, sooner or later. New power means new abuse, even if it doesn’t happen for years.

  23. scott>I’m not defending Harris, I couldn’t stand to see what he was about to do to the province.I remember talking on cfrb with andy barrie about Mike and I asked mike to put down those promises on paper that he wouldn’t decimate the education system and download social responsibilities.Mike flatly refused to sign such a document, his direction was clear but like most elections the voters refuse to read between the lines and go to a popular line that a politician delivers.He definitely said he would cut taxes that was his core issue.He said he was coming to fix government and not be the government( the guy was crazy)

    But Miller should be held accountable for the huge “flip-flop” that his team has thrown on this city.He knew very well what the state of finances were in this city and he covered up that knowledge.In fact they are still doing it to us.I have to use freedom of information requests just to get basic information that should be public.We have already seen what happens to city staff who release that information.I can only imagine what is being planned behind closed doors at this very moment.And to think some of us believed we had a democracy.

  24. Interesting and important blog. Just want to correct the record.

    -I have never advocated, supported or voted for a ban on selling fireworks in Toronto.

    -I have never advocated, supported or voted for a ban on selling markers to minors

    – I have never advocated, supported or voted for a ban on opening nightclubs in Toronto.

    – I have never advocated supported or voted for a ban on bottle service in all of Toronto.

    – I have never advocated supported or voted to put a gate on graffiti alley

    – I do support video cameras in the entertainment district and in very site specific locations for very specific reasons. I do not support blanketing the city with them because they do not prevent crime.

    I do have positions on how government should regulate things like the sale of liquor or explosives, just not as characterized Mr Bracken.

    If you want my positions on these or any other issue please feel free to contact my office. That is something Kevin Bracken has only done once since the election. Never once did we discuss any of the issues above.

    Because of past postings, which were also inaccurate and accusatory by Mr. Bracken (and for which he always apologizes for later), I will not be engaging in a debate on this forum with him. I just wanted to correct the record.

    Adam Vaughan
    City Councillor Ward 20

    PS Also for the record – I don’t support a “U.S. Strong Mayor” style Government for Toronto. I support stronger neighbourhoods. I believe this builds a better city. I believe the best way to do this is to support strong community based organizations. I while continue to work towards this goal as a city councillor.

  25. I suppose it would have been wise of me to include my sources:

    + Fireworks

    “If things don’t change, the City of Toronto may have no choice but to ban fireworks”, said Councillor Vaughan.

    + Selling “graffiti items” to kids

    Part of the “festering in a mess of drugs and graffiti” video that was removed from his campaign site. Wish I’d transcribed it.

    + Long-Term Moratorium on new clubs:

    “With a moratorium on new nightclubs in the area expiring this month, Mr. Vaughan will ask the city’s licensing committee tomorrow to direct bureaucrats to come up with “planning mechanisms” that would allow “long-term moratoriums” on new nightclubs, and establish rules on how many can be in any one part of the city.”

    -Globe and Mail

    + The Graffiti Alley thing is actually from this unsourced blog post:


    So I will take Adam’s word for it. I actually couldn’t imagine him advocating that, I think he probably loves graffiti alley if his uTOpia chapter reflects his opinion. He still did want to gate other alleys, though.

    + Bottle Service

    “A proposed joint committee of the AGCO and the city [partially spearheaded by Vaughan] aims to crack down on the wild behaviour on the streets of the downtown club district. *Abolishing bottle service* and better controlling queues on the sidewalk are on their radar.”

    -Globe and Mail (

    With all due respect to Adam, he has denied his positions to me on a number of occasions when they are clearly true, so maybe it’s actually a semantics debate. We have discussed these issues at great length, and even then Adam denied having a “plan” for the club district. Like I said, this is bigger than the clubs, but the “District plan” is easy to piece together just by reading his quotes in various newspapers.

  26. Toronto’s ” time ” is over. Like Detroit after the influx of Japanese Cars.