All the talk lately about possible municipal government reforms has more than a few Toronto councillors spooked. And it probably won't take much to whip them into an absolute panic. Most local politicians hereabouts like it when there's a lot of public discussion regarding the much-needed improvements that must be made to the financial relationship Canada's largest city has with the provincial and federal governments.
But as soon as word starts going around that council may have to pay a price for levelling the intergovernmental playing field, the crowd making occasional use of the clamshell chamber suspended above Nathan Phillips Square suddenly goes quiet. They've got a pretty good hunch that any changes to the city's governance structure will include a further reduction in the number of councillors with well-paid jobs at City Hall.
What makes this thought all the more alarming to some ward reps is the fact that it's not just the nasty Queen's Parkers who big-banged the megacity into existence five years ago whom they have to fear on this front. The provincial Liberals have also waded into the fray. And so far, it's not clear that they're on city council's side of the issue.
When Ontario Grit leader Dalton McGuinty makes it known that with a Liberal government at Queen's Park there will be proposals for "changing the governance structure for Toronto's municipal council," what does he mean? Nobody, including McGuinty, seems to know. The Liberals just want it known that they're aware of civic issues and concerns, so they don't get outflanked by Premier Ernie Eves and his devolutionary Conservatives.
But that "me too" approach to policy-making by the official opposition party tends to twist nervous stomachs at City Hall into knots these days. This is largely because both Eves and his municipal affairs minister, Chris Hodgson, have indicated they're in no big hurry to make further changes to the way politics is played and government is run in the provincial capital.
The Mike Harris-led Tories cut the size of Toronto council by 13 members prior to the 2000 municipal election, after rearranging ward boundaries to match those of federal and provincial constituencies. That should be enough tinkering for the time being, Eves figures. There are bigger fish than Mayor Mel Lastman and his cohorts to be fried at this late stage in the Ontario government's mandate. The new premier would prefer that city council come forward with its own solutions for the structural ailments afflicting it.
But with the provincial Liberals seemingly ambivalent on the subject of further downsizing council, there's fear the Tories may be emboldened to once again wield the cleaver. McGuinty has effectively signalled that there won't be much public opposition to another round of surgery, so why not?
What will most likely spare self-preservation-conscious councillors for the short term is the anticipated redistribution of federal ridings across the country. Data provided by the 2001 national census will most likely mean Toronto gets at least two more electoral districts to accommodate the growth of its voter population.
And since there are two city wards located within each federal/provincial riding, it will mean paid employment for a minimum of four more councillors under the existing system of local government.
Unfortunately for those seeking political opportunities, there hasn't been much serious talk about increasing the size of Toronto council. In fact, virtually all conversation regarding numbers has concentrated on the city having as many councillors as it has MPs and MPPs. In other words, half as many as the 44 Toronto now supports. With riding redistribution, the city could end up with 24 or 25 council representatives.
None of these changes seems likely before next year's municipal vote. The electoral boundary maps that will serve as a catalyst for reform won't be redrawn and approved in time. But don't be too surprised when potential candidates for mayor in the post-Lastman era start staking out their turf on this issue.
Doug Holyday, for one, is already speaking out in favour of removing more chairs from the council chamber. "It takes so long to do our business because it's such an unwieldy group," he says. "Forty-five people is an awful lot of people to be in on the decision."
He points out that in New York City, each councillor represents approximately 140,000 people. Here, the ratio is one local politician to about 50,000 residents. Even with the number of T.O. councillors cut by half, the ratio would still be lower than in the Big Apple, Holyday says.
The former mayor of pre-amalgamation Etobicoke would also like to see a return to the supposedly good old days when boards of control were elected to serve as a municipality's powerful executive committee. Holyday maintains that six such politicians would have the power to keep the mayor and a smaller council of 22 (plus whatever redistribution adds) focused and on the right political track.
"It would be a much more efficient system than the one we have now," the councillor for Ward 3 (Etobicoke Centre) argues.
Like Holyday, deputy mayor Case Ootes is a staunch Conservative. But he disagrees with almost everything his colleague has to say on the subject of municipal government reforms.
Ootes has heard the rumblings about an impending reduction in the number of local politicians and he's opposed to such a move. "I wouldn't speak in favour of it, because I don't think that's where the answer to our governance problem lies," says the Ward 29 (Toronto-Danforth) councillor, considered by many to have the early lead in the unofficial race to replace Lastman in the mayor's chair come November 2003.
Ootes is also dead set against Holyday's proposal for an elected board of control. He fears such a system would create a bunch of "mini-mayors" who could easily undermine a chief magistrate's agenda and sink council into chaos. Ootes maintains it's time for the mayor of Toronto to be elevated above his council colleagues.
"Everything that happens in the city falls at the doorstep of the mayor, whether he has control over it or not," the current deputy claims. "He ought to have some power that sets him apart from councillors." Ootes said that could be accomplished by letting the mayor appoint an executive committee and the chairs of all standing committees without any interference from the rest of council.
Ironically, it's Lastman's ham-fisted attempt to do exactly that without benefit of provincial legislation that has made Toronto council downright dysfunctional over the course of the past two years. This would indicate that a mayoral election is what's really needed to get things back on track.
After that, it's anybody's guess what might happen.