Councillors practised the first rule of firefighting on Friday and Monday, November 15 and 18: contain the blaze and rescue those trapped within, in this case the people of Toronto.
And now, thanks to the motions that stripped the mayor of 90 per cent of his staff, his ability to appoint committee chairs, his right to designate key matters at council and to chair the executive committee and more, Rob Ford has been rightly curtailed.
Neither can he direct the city in the case of an emergency the thought of an alcohol-prone Ford taking leadership in a crisis was just too scary to contemplate. Who would trust his judgment to use extra powers in a crisis?
And while nobody at City Hall is likely to admit it, staff who were once intimidated into supporting the Fords’ projects will be increasingly confident that they can ignore the wacky policy ideas coming from the now diminished mayor’s office.
For many, this might well be a bittersweet “we told you so” moment. There were fears back in 2006 when the City Of Toronto Act (COTA) was proclaimed that it vested too much power to the mayor. The act, which gave more authority to Toronto’s council than any other in Ontario, borrowed from the strong mayor system common in the U.S.
It was COTA that gave council the right to provide the chief magistrate with power to appoint committee chairs and the deputy mayor (both previously chosen by council), though there was always the proviso that a two-thirds vote of council could amend those decisions. The theory was that the act would allow the mayor, in conjunction with council, to better shape local priorities.
Some, especially on the left, expressed concern at the time that such a concentration of powers would let a chief magistrate run roughshod over council, undermining the traditional City Hall culture of cooperation and compromise. Lucky for us, proposals to give the mayor a veto and other executive powers were not included in COTA.
The same reluctance led councillors this week to amend the procedural bylaw, which was the way powers granted in COTA were exercised, to take back the power council had ceded to the mayor. Most councillors supporting this change worried about establishing a precedent that would enable a future council disagreeing with the mayor to similarly defang him or her. And there’s no question that taking powers from an elected official who garnered 383,501 votes in the election – more than David Miller’s share in 2003 or 06 – is a serious matter.
Still, curtailing Ford’s mandate was a better option than allowing the province to step in and legislate a solution. It’s conceivable that a future provincial government, perhaps holding no Toronto seats at all, could find a reason to meddle in the governance of the city against the wishes of council. So our local government, big on grassroots participation and light on executive power, had the wherewithal and authority to protect the city.
Councillors simply used the amending formula to change the act, giving the requisite notice at a previous meeting and ensuring the amendment to the bylaw received two-thirds of the votes of councillors present. Perhaps now, to make this experience relevant in the future, council should codify under what conditions it can and should withdraw a mayor’s powers.
Finally, council should resist any temptation to ask the province for recall legislation, which is more often than not used against governments exercising their democratic prerogative. While it would be nice to invoke it against Ford-like mayors, in the long run the threat of recall would curtail a lot of good, strong progressive actions by governments and is inherently undemocratic. This mayoral crisis, while distracting and embarrassing, is a relatively short-term predicament, but harming our democratic traditions would do lasting damage.