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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

ELECTION: Powers of the mayor should sway voters

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Back in the summer, when Rob Ford carried a large lead in the polls, a lot of friends and colleagues would talk to me about the looming election with impending fear and angst. But each conversation would end with the comment, “Well, at least he is only one vote of 45,” or “Luckily, the mayor doesn’t have that much power.”

While those may be comforting thoughts to Toronto progressives, these assumptions are naive at best and deluded at worst.

It is true that the mayor’s vote is equal to all other councillors, but the chief magistrate does have much more power than many residents know. For instance, the mayor automatically has a seat on the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB). He/she is also the person that represents the City in inter-governmental affairs. And the mayor sets the tone and tactics of any labour negotiations.

It is these powers of the mayor, I believe, that should sway the swing and undecided voters of this election away from Mr. Ford. And maybe even push Joe Pantalone voters towards George Smitherman.

Consider this: As mayor and a member of the TPSB, Mr. Ford would be able to push for certain policing initiatives that suits his political point-of-view (which, of course, he has a right to do). But as we’ve seen, Ford has an extreme view of how the City should police it’s citizens: he didn’t have any problems with the policing efforts of the G20 Summit and saw no reason to investigate the actions and tactics used by the security forces. And just last night on a radio debate, Ford came out  against the long-gun registry, despite the fact that police chief Bill Blair, and 66% of Torontonians, sees it as a vital tool for the police. Ford clearly stated that he would take his marching orders from Prime Minister Harper on this issue and not the professionals who deal with crime on a daily basis.

More importantly, the TPSB deals with loads of confidential information. Ford has recently demonstrated that he holds little regard for confidentiality: first he blabbed to the Toronto Sun that he believes city council is corrupt due to the discussions of an in-camera council meeting about a contract for an east-end waterfront Boardwalk restaurant; and more blatantly when he discussed the price of an on-going real estate deal on his AM640 radio show (the City’s independent integrity commissioner asked that Ford be reprimanded for his recklessness). If he can’t keep his mouth shut on these confidential issues how can we trust him to keep quiet when he is presented with, say, the list of Toronto police officers under investigation?

Now consider this: The mayor has the authority to negotiate inter-governmental affairs without the consent or support of city council. In theory, Mr. Ford could call up his family friend and federal finance minister Jim Flaherty and tell him that Toronto is just hunky-dory with the transfer money the Canadian government provides the City. For example, funding for public housing could be severely curtailed. Mr. Ford has clearly stated he doesn’t want any more immigrants moving into the city; while, as mayor, he has no power to control the flow of people, he could make sure that the services the City provides to newcomers, such as affordable housing, could be easily undermined by allowing the funds from Ottawa to be cut or eliminated.

And lastly, consider this: On March 31, 2011, the current collective bargaining agreement with TTC workers is set to expire. While many Torontonians, including a plethora of non-Ford supporters, want to see the TTC workers make many concessions in this next round of negotiations that prospect seems very unlikely, with a strike quite possible. But what would Mayor Ford vs. TTC employee negotiations look like? Well, he has proven that he has very little understanding of the value of public transit in his election platform and his history as councillor demonstrates how little regard he has for the TTC (his ward boasts the lowest transit ridership in the city, according to the 2006 census). He has also stated that he supports the TTC being deemed an essential service. This takes away a worker’s right to strike but substantially increases the settlement costs. So while Mr. Ford trumpets his “respect for taxpayers” motto, he has inadvertently advocated that second largest line item on the City’s operating budget be increased. We could end up with a double-whammy: a bitter strike that lasts for a few days before the province sends TTC employees back to work (and serious region-wide congestion) and then the possibility of a costly settlement.

I’m not about to sit here and tell any of Spacing’s readers who to vote for (though my colleague Shawn Micallef has made a compelling case to vote for number 2). But I can certainly outline why choosing the mayor is not just a simple case of who will tax me the least or who is going to privatize services or who will put a green roof on every home. It is much more complex, with some issues clearly outweighing other issues of concern.

When I examine the true powers that any mayor can exert on city council and Toronto residents, the reality of a Ford mayoralty mortifies me. As I head to the poll on Monday these issues will be top of mind, not to mention at the tip of my pencil as I fill out my ballot.

photo by Miles Storey



  1. A short (legislated back after 1 – 2 days) strike by TTC workers is a minor inconvenience compared to the alternative if the TTC is declared an essential service. In 1989, we had a 41 day work to rule campaign. We used every TTC rule, policy, and procedure to disrupt service. TTC ridership fell as a result, and took over a decade to return. Ever see a TTC bus with a burnt out headlight or other lamp? Under the Highway Traffic Act, this vehicle cannot be on the road or the driver is personally responsible for the ticket. Guess what, I will park it until the problem is fixed. The list goes on and service is severely disrupted. Pay a student fare and not show a student card – bus out of sevice. Short pay the cash fare – bus out of service. Use an invalid transfer – bus out of service. The list goes on, every thing that most drivers turn a blind eye to become an issue of rule enforcement. This is not what we want to do, but this is the realaity if we lose the right to strike. One other point to consider – work to rule means that we do not perform overtime. Many buses will be missing due to no operators – get ready for overcrowding on the remaining buses!

  2. None of these arguments hold any water for me.

    1) Police Services Board: The mayor is just one vote on the TPSB, just as he is one vote on Council. And if he breaches confidentiality, there are consequences in place.

    2) Federal negotiations: How would a Liberal do any better than a Tory? We’ll either have an NDP or Liberal mayor who has bad relations with Harper and won’t get any money, or a Tory mayor who gets along with Harper – but doesn’t want any money. Same difference, no?

    3) Labour negotiations: After last year’s strike between a union and an NDP mayor, I think it’s a weak argument to say that a conservative mayor would lead to labour unrest.

    This seems like more fear mongering. So sad to watch this election twirl down the toilet..

  3. Thank you Mr. Blackett for this. I’m happy to spread the word as I’ve never been clear what a mayor can or cannot do. 

    Mr Meslin, I believe you missed the point:

    1. the mayor appoints the other spot to the TPSB and picks the chair. the TPSB can be crafted to fit Ford’s world view of more more more police. He is more than one vote. 

    2. A Liberal would be better since he does not have an ideology to eliminate funds to cities. The Feds want no part of it even though most western nations have direct funding between feds and cities. Ford would finish the Harris-era common sense revolution. 

    3. You totally missed this one: it wasn’t about labour unrest — it is about hypocricy of “respect for taxpayers” when Ford’s policy will result in higher costs.  

  4. Thanks Matt for sharing your valuable insight. The more open discussion about the role and power of the prospective mayor the better.

    Dave: I appreciate your responses to Matt as much as his post because they contribute immensely to this vital debate. However, I feel your “swirling done the toilet” comment is also fear mongering, and worse, condescending. Just as I would have no patience for someone saying your ideas are akin to a swirling toilet, I have the same response when you level that against Matt. Next time I suggest you present a strong argument to counter his points and leave it at that rather than snidely implying that anyone who has a differing, or less informed, opinion than you is flushing democracy down the toilet.

  5. @Dave: A federal election coupled with a new, non-Conservative prime minister early during the term of the next mayor is within the realm of possibility.

  6. What I think everyone is glossing over is the moral an tone setting authority which the mayor carries. Being the ONLY position on council elected by the entire city and the politician in Canada with the largest direct electorate, the Mayor carries extensive moral and political authority. Council as a whole will find it difficult to reject everything that Ford wants given this.

  7. To make a radical suggestion: next week, we’ll go to the polls and elect an imperfect mayor. As we did in 2006, and 2003, and all the way back to the first Toronto mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie. A candidate who inspires on the campaign trail may turn in a surprisingly lackluster performance in office; conversely, a compromise choice nobody really wanted can govern very well indeed. I intend to vote for George Smitherman because I consider him the best candidate, and by that, I mean the best person available for the job. I certainly won’t waste my time lamenting the failure of some mythic amalgam of Jane Jacobs, Pericles, Dick Whittington and Elrond to step forward and run for office.

    To the extent this campaign leaves people feeling cynical, I suggest we face the real flaws in the progressive Toronto coalition. From the cavalier attitude to public money Rob Ford exploited to the globalism of the current mayor to the lack of a serious conversation about attracting more people of colour as candidates for mayor and other leadership positions: if we don’t stand for something more than fake beaches and streetcars, no wonder we have flashes of cynicism.

  8. Good post Matt. (and great discussion)

    These are extremely important points that everyone should pay attention to.

    I’d add to that the setting of “tone and tactics” extends well beyond labour negotiations, to all areas of City politics.

    In much the same way that Ford has been successful in making this election revolve around the “Toronto is broken” myth, as mayor, he would be in THE position of authority to set the tone for how council functions and how the public perceives the role of municipal government.

    Ford’s an antagonist, who thrives on creating a polarized environment. I’d predict that as mayor he’d be only too glad to stage a number of high profile crises, to further cleave council into camps – to in effect prove his ‘broken’ theory. After all, the guy’s angry man routine doesn’t have legs unless there something for people to be angry at and what better than council dysfunction and a string of stalemates he might pin on a so-called lefty council.

    If voicing these serious threats to the future of the city is fear mongering then so be it. The good thing about fear is it wakes us up and flight or fight follows. It’s good to see some fight (and fighting words) growing our there. There’s a hell of a lot at stake.

  9. Spacing could at least pretend to unbiased when it comments on the election.

    Seriously, Ford has a huge base of support and calling all these people stupid just doesn’t cut it. It would be better to take a serious look at what policies in the last four years have created this backlash. By doing so the Left would be better able to formulate policies that appeal to a broader base, instead being a grab bag of every special interest group’s wish list.

    Both Smitherman and Pantalone have run very poor campaigns. If Smitherman wins next week, it won’t be on his merits.

  10. @ Todd Irvine

    I’m confused.  I’m not sure why you you’d think that the comment “twirl down the toilet” is fear mongering.  Can you explain more?

    To me, the comment is more lamenting the fact that most of the progressive candidates have falling to the wayside and only Ford and Smitherman are left as true contenders for the mayor’s position.  At least, that is the way I interpreted the comment.


    Even though I don’t agree with a lot of Ford’s views, I do happen to agree that more police officers are needed in this city.

  11. The whole discussion of strategic voting and the holding of noses ignores the reality that Mr. Pantalone has been anything but an ideal mayoral candidate. Case in point: no one lobbied more aggressively for the construction of the Front Street Extension — a project that would have inflicted enormous damage on the downtown — yet Pantalone’s campaign messaging has meticulously expunged this inconvenient detail from his green resume.

    Pantalone’s consistently unimpressive performance was further driven home to me the other night when, during the CP24 debate, he stated that with either George Smitherman or Rob Ford in the mayor’s office, Toronto would be “on the road to Detroit.” 

    How’s that? Is this city’s vitality so fragile, and is the mayor so all-powerful, that we could sit idly by as Toronto became a morbidly depressed post-industrial wasteland in the course of one or two council terms? Please.

    Pantalone’s crack reminded me of the left’s preposterous taunts, made earlier this year, that the Liberals’ decision to delay the Transit City funding would incite in our inner suburbs the kind of civil unrest that swept through Paris’ banlieus a few years back.  

    These desperate rhetorical gymnastics reveal an ugly side to the political instincts on the progressive side of the ledger, not to mention an unexpected contempt for the newest Torontonians. Would this city allow a single politician to blithely ruin the remarkable urban vibrancy that exists here? Do we think so poorly of the new Canadians who live often difficult lives in the inner suburbs that we’d expect them to riot over something as quotidian as a delayed construction project? Surely — obviously — Toronto is made of much tougher fabric, and it has dismayed me, during this long, unpleasant election, to listen to this kind of talk from the politicians who claim to be the guardians of our civic virtues.  

  12. And what makes you think George Smitherman is a better alternative. Maybe you should give your head a shake and look at what has transpired in the various portfolios that George has held responsibility for but tries very hard not to be held accountable for in terms of the unsatisfactory outcomes. I really wouldn’t like to have the City of Toronto as his “3rd strike”.

  13. The words “Mayor Ford” and “collective bargaining” together oughta do it. I don’t care if that is fear mongering. Ford, and I think he would argue this point himself, is not a big fan of searching for compromises, which is largely why he’s often the one voting no on otherwise unanimous decisions (or 38-3 type votes). He rarely even tries to amend, other than receipt motions. If he disagrees, he flat out uncompromisingly disagrees and would dig his heels into a mountain of horsecrap to hold his side of the argument, no matter what. Whatever his ideological stance on transit or any other issue is, that personality trait is not particularly well suited for labour negotiations. Combined with spend less, blah blah, and I couldn’t imagine a combination more likely to result in some protracted and very very angry disputes if he’s at the head of one of the sides.

    As for the mayor’s potential sway on boards, wouldn’t large changes have to get through the budget process? I’m not an expert by any means, but I would think whether he controls or sits on TPSB or TTC or whatever, dramatic alterations still need money allocated and that would have to get through the rest of council, but I may be missing something there. So sure he’ll kill any meaningful G20 review stuff he can and who knows how the promotion process will go and whatever the hell else it is that TPSB gets to do, but more cops still requires mountains of dough, as do buses and subways over streetcars, so the boards need the larger authority of council when their changes require new tax dollars, right? But that’s more speaking to the comments than what Matt brought up.

    Intergovernmental… I have no idea what’s better and basically shudder regardless. They’ll be in their own elections soon enough and will be doing what they think will appease the voters, not what a Toronto Mayor asks of them, just my guess. There may be a reason for concern here, but figuring out how money gets from one side of the hall to another is hard enough, without thinking you can predict how it’ll play out between Toronto and the Province or the Feds depending on who’s the mayor.

    And if I’d been a US citizen in 2000, I would’ve voted for Nader on principle and still would today despite the hindsight of the Bush, which no one really needed back then either. Strategic voting be damned! “Moderates” better learn one day that next time they get in power, they need electoral reform that allows us ideologues to pick our faves first and the middling compromisers second so they’ll always stay in power and nothing will ever change. How the liberal party hasn’t gotten this done yet is beyond me.

  14. Just wanted to add that the mayor has some other powers that are not mentioned here. From what I understand:

    He/she has the sole power to name members and chairs of standing committees, and the chairs can have a strong influence on meeting agendas and what actually gets discussed and passed on to council.

    The mayor also presents to the council his/her candidate to sit on the striking committee, and the striking committee has a lot of power in terms of assigning members to many other important committee, who again, decide what items make to the council meetings and get voted on. 

  15. It is a tad hypocritical to warn of these powers when they already exist. It is like saying you like democracy so long as the voting public agrees with you.

  16. Glen: Hypocritical? For writing an article to outline a few of the powers the mayor has that most people don’t know?

    It’s not hypocritical. It’s simply just critical. How much does the public know about the mayors powers? Not much. I didnt know about the inter-gov affairs, I didn’t know about the sway and the TPSB. 

  17. Oh, and @ james:
    “Spacing could at least pretend to unbiased when it comments on the election.”

    This is an opinion piece. Do you think the Globe is unbiased when Gee writes that Rossi has a good financial plan? 

    This is a column by Blackett, not a Spacing endorsement (unless I’ve missed it). He has a right to express it. Where you want unbiased opinion is in NEWS articles which Spacing has provided in ample supply. 

  18. You say you don’t want to tell people how TO vote right after you spend a whole article telling people how NOT TO vote… Say what??

    Yeah, it’s a pretty bleak field this time out. But you have to play the hand you’re dealt and dodging this choice in favour of…I don’t know what…journalistic integrity(??) is disgraceful. As an individual, Matthew Blackett certainly has a right to keep his choice to himself, but as a publication that wants to be a vital part of the civic discourse, Spacing has a duty to stand for someone. 

    I applaud Shawn Micallef for making his case for a candidate and it’s fine that Spacing printed it…but I want to see the Spacing candidate. 

    If the dust clears on this mess of an election and we find ourselves with Mayor Ford, the Pantalone supporters are going to take a hell of a beating based on the perception that they played the spoiler. But it’s the Anti-Ford movement who really deserves the punishment. They kept (and in the form of the article, continues to keep) the lens firmly focused on Rob Ford. He got all the press, he got all the ink and if he squeaks out a victory, that’ll be why. 

  19. Although the author of this article claims “he is not about to sit here and tell any of Spacing’s readers who to vote for”, he simply is. It is tainted with the thinking of the “Anyone but Rob Ford” movement which, by the way, was never about “anyone”… rather, it was about George Smitherman. I was asked to join that movement at the very beginning of its creation. However, it did not take me long to figure out that it was only a way to manipulate and sway Pantalone supporters to vote for George.

    I’ve made my decision some time ago and already voted.

    What amazes me in this election is the hypocrisy of both front-runners.

    Rob Ford talks about the ‘gravy train’ and claims he will stop the party at City Hall, yet the numbers listed in his fiscal platform -it is known- simply do not add up. Second, it does not seem to matter to him how his right-wing, corporate vision for the city of Toronto will affect those less fortunate in this city through his tax cuts. He truly represents those with money who have a car, a house, etc.

    Then we have George Smitherman who pretends to be ‘progressive’ when all the while he has the endorsement of the most conservative politicians from the Harris era. Is that an oxymoron or what? In addition to that, he keeps trying to differentiate himself from Rob Ford but, often times, actions speak louder words: Rob Ford cancelled a debate this week, Smitherman followed. Who cares that Torontonians wanted to hear what he had to say? The important thing to George Smitherman is that he be elected. Nothing else matters. And no matter the cost.

    Perhaps this is what Dave meant when he wrote: “So sad to watch this election twirl down the toilet”.

  20. Josh: You are one of our best commenters and provide great insight. But I disagree with your assumption that it is somehow disgraceful not to come out and pick a candidate.

    I feel that Spacing *does not* have a duty to stand for someone but rather present a variety of opinions and ideas. Spacing does not vote. Our readers do and they can pick whomever they want.

    If there is no one that Spacing can stand behind should we say “spoil your ballot”? I’d like to think not. Rather, we’re more inclined to present the truth as we see it. John Lorinc has been writing many opinion pieces since the Spring and each candidate has been put through the wringer.

    As I said, I wanted to outline why what was motivating/concerning me as I get ready to cast my vote. I’ll never hold it against anyone if they vote for Pants, Ford, George or anyone else on the ballot. But I felt compelled to share my concerns.

    Many of our editors and contributors have varying opinions on who to vote for. And they have had the freedom to express those at any time. We decided long ago to let our writers express their own opinions and not have one united Spacing voice. Voters can pick who they want without telling them who we want as a magazine.

  21. @ATU113member Great thinking! Take it out on the riders. Work to rule. (Do you even know the rules?) Brilliant! Here is another tactic. Try doing your job the best possible way to benefit the rider/your customer. Go out of your way to provide such good service that when contract time comes along people will say “These guys are great. Give them what they want.”
    Want to see how to do it? Go ride Mississauga Transit and see the difference in how customers are treated and how they respond to the drivers. I use both systems regularly. A world of difference.

  22. Hi Matthew – first off, thanks for replying. Secondly, I agree that you, like all of the editors of Spacing should be able to use this forum to discuss your personal views without necessarily having them reflect Spacing as an organization. It was not my intention to seems as though I was attacking your right to use your own outlet as you see fit. And lastly on this point, I regret my use of the word “disgraceful”. I would much rather have chosen a phrasing that wasn’t quite so strong.

    In an effort to make my point more elegantly, I’ll say this…

    I have, with considerable consternation, watched the mainstream media (specifically the print media, because I think there’s a perception that they have greater legitimacy on political issues than radio or television) bleed copious ink talking about the popularity (and flaws) of Rob Ford without taking any responsibility for the fact that they were at the same time essentially acting as his press office. If one tallied up all the ink spent on Ford, I’m certain it would vastly eclipse his opponents.

    Now, in the closing days of the campaign they have each slovenly trotted out an embarrassingly tepid endorsement for George Smitherman (with the exception of the Sun, I think) as if to apologize for having helped cause this whole mess in the first place. You might think that having shown my disdain for that type of last minutes horse picking, I’d have no interest in an endorsement from Spacing. However…

    It’s urban people who will suffer most under the mandate of a bad mayor and yet’s it’s urban people (especially the well informed ones) who seem most reticent to make a pick in this election. Understandable I suppose, given the choice. But I’ll reiterate that if one wants to participate in the democratic process one must play the hand they’re dealt.

    Perhaps you’re right that Spacing’s foremost duty is to inform as you’ve done. But is it any wonder the urban vote is so often ignored (at all levels) when the greatest proponents of urbanity think it’s best that they only comment on a campaign. 

    I think publications such as yours do have an obligation to be more involved in the process and I hunger for the kind of informed, well drawn endorsement that could serve as a counterpoint to the trend driven nonsense of the mainstream media. I could do it (and have), but I don’t have your readership. I realize that your editors have offered that individually, but I see so much value in it being offered organizationally that I’m compelled to…well…compel. 

    In closing, becoming more involved is not so much about influencing the electorate as it is about combating the cynicism created by bad, money driven media as well as taking a stand against sensational political reporting. I see Spacing already playing a roll in that effort (even if that’s not your overall goal) and I encourage the magazine and blog to play an even bigger one.

  23. The argument about the TPSB really doesn’t pan out. The TPSB is pretty much toothless even under mayor Miller, and while its nice to have Adam Vaughan there, recommending an “inquiry” into police activity at the G20, the fact is that the on…ly police officer who is required to appear before it is the police chief, and any internal investigations of police are handled by him on his discretion.

    Real disciplinary measure against police are handled by the OPIRD, and the TPSB really only handles budgeting and general policy issues.

    Witness this fact: Having Adam Vaughan on the TPSB, did absolutely nothing to prevent massive breaches of civil rights by the police during the G20 fiasco this summer.

  24. Long gun registry the same. Please, that has nothing to do with city politics.

    I agree that Ford being opposed to gay marriage is essentially homophobic, but that does not amount to him wanting to give the police carte blanche to go on a rampage against Queers. Ford is out of luck there too. Gay marriage is here to stay, and that also has nothing to do with anything that he will have control of.

    This kind of excessive hyperbolic rhetoric amounts to character assassination.

    Smitherman fans should beware here: Based on this campaign we can also say that Smitherman is fat-phobic and also likes to make fun of short people. He has also openly derided aging people in diapers when he was health minister and berated nurses publicly..

    You want a mayor in office who will interrupt people and make quips about people’s height live on TV?

  25. The logic that really baffles me is “I don’t like Ford or Smitherman, and a vote for Pantalone is a ‘wasted’ vote, so I won’t vote at all.”
    Voting for something you believe in is not a waste! But not voting is certainly a waste of your franchise.