New Powers for “Strong Mayors” Coming in Toronto and Ottawa

The question is how the Provincial government can act quickly to get new housing stock built in Ontario, and the answer, apparently, is to create strong mayors. This hypothesis will be put to the test first in Toronto and Ottawa with the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, a new piece of legislation introduced today by Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark.

On Thursday, the Government of Ontario introduced the bill that is supposed to help Ontario get to the goal of 1.5 million new homes in the next 10 years. They say these new powers for mayors will be an important tool to get those homes built faster by giving the mayor direct power to act on planning policy and cut red tape.

The legislation is being tested in Toronto and Ottawa first because one-third of the province’s growth over the next decade is expected in those two cities.

“While there is no silver bullet to addressing the housing crisis, the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act is another step in the right direction to provide more tools to municipal leaders to deliver on their platform commitments to constituents,” Clark said in a statement. “The province is actively deepening our cooperation on all fronts across all municipalities to get 1.5 million homes built over the next 10 years.”

Here are the new powers in the legislation:

1) Hiring – Mayors will be given the ability to hire a variety of positions at city hall, including the Chief Administrative Officer, or empower others to act on their behalf. Presently, the hiring of the CAO is handled by a special hiring committee, which includes members of city council. The city clerk, treasurer, integrity commissioner, chief of police, chief building official, medical officer of health and some other positions are exempt from the mayors’ new hiring authority.

2) Committees and boards – Mayors will be able to appoint the chairs and vice-chairs of certain committees and local boards, as well as change the make-up to “best support a municipality.” Mayors will also be able create new committees.

3) Provincial priorities – Mayors will be able to bring items to council that advance so-called provincial priorities, which includes the housing supply crisis, the construction and maintenance of infrastructure (like transit and roads), and to support new and existing residential development.

4) The Budget – This legislation would make the mayor responsible for developing the municipal budget and to bring it forward for council consideration. Members of council will be able to propose amendments, but the mayor will have the ability to veto those amendments unless council can muster a two-thirds majority to override the veto.

5) Veto Powers! – This is the new power that’s gotten the most press since new legislation to empower mayors was proposed last month. The power is limited though, the mayor can only veto any bylaw that might interfere with one of those provincial priorities, and ike the budget, council will be able to override the mayor’s veto with a two-thirds majority vote.

The other change made by the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act is that a municipality will be required to hold a by-election if the mayor’s position becomes vacant anytime before March 31.

If (likely when) the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act is passed the new rules will go into effect for the start of the new term of council in Toronto and Ottawa on November 15. So how do the current mayors of Toronto and Ottawa feel about it?

In a statement, Toronto Mayor John Tory said he supports it, but his job will remain the same. “I always want to make sure city hall is working more efficiently and effectively for Toronto residents and businesses and that we make it as easy as possible to get things done and that’s what I’ll be looking for as I read the proposed legislation,” he said.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who is not seeking re-election this fall, had some different feelings. “I don’t quite understand how giving me more powers is going to help build more houses,” he said in an interview with CBC. “We need more money from the province, because houses cost money, and we need more flexibility in rules, such as inclusionary zoning, which allows greater density in certain areas.”

Mayor Cam Guthrie told CJOY in an interview last month that he didn’t want to react to the idea of “Strong Mayor” legislation until he saw the actual bill, but he also said that whatever ended up being proposed would have no bearing on the way he conducts council business. “No matter what changes are being proposed, I will continue to collaborate with anyone on anything that makes the City of Guelph better,” Guthrie said.

Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner had a much stronger reaction to the legislation.

“Doug Ford’s second term as Premier begins the same way as the first – with yet another attack on local democracy and the people of Toronto and Ottawa. This time it comes disguised as a strategy to solve the province’s housing crisis,” Schreiner said adding that ending exclusionary zoning and investing in the supply of affordable housing would have a more direct impact.

“Ford did not campaign on this change. A change that continues a dangerous trend to concentrate power in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Premier’s Office, and now the mayor’s office,” Schreiner added. “A diversity of viewpoints is what makes democratic governments representative of the people they serve. Attacking local democracy is not a solution to Ontario’s housing crisis.”

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