It no longer seems to be a matter of if, but rather of when Toronto councillors will again have their numbers cut by the province.The Tories are under increasing pressure from many quarters to finally make some meaningful changes to our municipal governance structure. But Premier Ernie Eves and his born-again Conservatives are deathly afraid of being seen as the kind of punitive bully Mike Harris was portrayed as when he forced amalgamation on six former municipalities in 1997.
Nor do the Tories want to be cast as the revenge-seeking thug Harris was seen to be when he rejigged megacity ward boundaries three years later to lop 13 politicians off an elected council that dared criticize his government.
So Eves and company have put out the message that they will only be spurred to take action if the call for local governance reform comes from City Hall. And, believe it or not, this approach seems to have sparked some serious discussion of the pros and cons of a further downsized council and the merits of an elected board of control. In fact, some well-known political operators are already plotting strategy in anticipation of just such developments.
One new governance model currently creating a stir would see the number of councillors reduced from 44 to 22 by merging the two wards within provincial/federal riding boundaries into one. But an additional six councillors would be elected at large from the six community council areas that roughly mirror the old city boundaries from before amalgamation. Those six would become council's exec committee or board of control, with strong budgetary powers.
"That probably is the best answer to governance in this city," said councillor Paul Sutherland, now considering a run at the mayoralty next year.
"Everything I'm hearing right now leads me to believe this is the direction things are headed in," said another councillor with a broad network of political contacts at all levels of government. "I think it's just a matter of time, and we'd best start getting ready for it."
Much of this apparent change in attitude could have something to do with the fact that councillor Doug Holyday is now chair of council's administration committee. One of the staunchest Conservatives with an office at 100 Queen West, Holyday has long been an advocate of both a much smaller council and an elected executive committee. His positions haven't always been popular with many of his colleagues. But since he took the administration committee helm in June, a softening of opinion regarding the former mayor of old Etobicoke seems to have occurred. And he's been busy making the rounds building support for his brand of reform.
Holyday insists things have been going rather well. "I've got over 50 per cent of our council who would like to see a board of control or an executive committee of some kind," he said in an interview this week. "Some councillors want it to be elected and others want it to be appointed. Some would like a board of control as part of a downsized council; others want council to stay the size it is. But at least a majority of people can agree there's something wrong with the way things are now."
With Eves and company certain to go to the provincial polls well before the next municipal election in November 2003, government reform in Toronto may not be a high priority for them. But some councillors figure maybe they should push for it to be addressed now. They're concerned that should the Tories be re-elected later this fall or (more likely) early next year, they'll be less inclined to listen to what local politicians have to say.
Holyday said he's been advised that even if the Ontario election isn't held until next June, the province would still have time to pass municipal governance legislation in time. Other sources indicated that officials in the Municipal Affairs Ministry have been making inquiries to city administrators, saying preparations are being made for such a possibility.
"I think it's in our best interests to come up with a new governance proposal while we might have some influence," said one councillor not known for playing ball with the gang in power at the legislature. "As things are now, council is just too unwieldy," he said.
Another councillor with similar views suggested council is split down the middle on the question of cutting the roster of ward politicians down to 22. "The half who think they can win re-election under a new system are in favour," he maintained. "Those who aren't so sure they'll survive aren't going to cut their own throats."
Holyday plans to write Municipal Affairs Minister Chris Hodgson to urge the provincial government to do something sooner rather than later. That is, if something isn't already well in the works.