Premier Doug Ford's surprise announcement that he intends to intervene in municipal elections set for October invited swift backlash from some elected politicians Friday — and prompted a couple of high-profile last-minute registrations in mayoral races.
With a morning press conference, Ford confirmed news that had leaked out late Thursday evening: He will be tabling a bill that will reduce the size of Toronto city council to 25 seats from a planned 47, and cancel the regional chair elections in Peel, York, Niagara and Muskoka.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused Ford of trying to "rig" the Toronto election and said it was "deeply chilling" that he would cancel the four regional chair elections that some of his former political rivals were vying for.
His rivals would include former Liberal cabinet minister Steven Del Duca, who was running for regional chair in York, and former PC leader Patrick Brown, who was running for regional chair in Peel.
Green Leader Mike Schreiner accused Ford of acting like a "dictator" and a hypocrite, saying: "The premier’s actions reek of hypocrisy as he puts our children’s safety at risk by calling for more consultation on the sex-ed curriculum, while he abuses his power to overhaul local governance with no consultation."
The news comes nearly three months into the municipal election period, with the votes scheduled for Oct. 22. The deadline for candidates to register closed at 2 p.m. Friday — Ford intends to reopen it, for Toronto council candidates only, to allow them to register in the new wards, after his bill has passed.
The deadline prompted two unexpected changes to the local political landscape: Brown registered to run for mayor of Brampton, facing off against former Liberal MPP Linda Jeffrey, and former Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat registered to run for mayor of Toronto against John Tory.
While I welcome Mr. Brown’s entry into the race I would like to bring to the attention of Brampton voters that the ink barely dried on his lease before he decided to seek our city’s highest office.
— Linda Jeffrey (@LindaJeffrey) July 27, 2018
Before she registered to run, Keesmaat blasted Ford's plan on Twitter, saying: "The city ran an extensive public consultation process before realigning Ward boundaries - a process that was challenged and upheld by the courts. Ignoring this outcome is inherently anti-democratic."
She also sent single word late-night tweet: "Secession."
Now I have had a chance to sleep on it. Secession. Why should a city of 2.8 million not have self governance?
— jennifer keesmaat (@jen_keesmaat) July 27, 2018
On Friday morning, Tory kicked off the criticism of Ford's move with a press conference, saying he was he was blindsided by the announcement, which he read about in the news Thursday night.
"I then spoke to Premier Ford and told him, in no uncertain terms, that the process around this stunning and massive change is absolutely not right," Tory said.
However, Tory was one of the few people who had some warning of the move; he said that when he met Ford at Queen's Park earlier this month the premier broached the subject – but the mayor didn't take him seriously at the time.
"He said it was for this election," Tory recalled, adding that he wasn't expecting the issue to be raised and he wasn't asked for his opinion, and it didn't seem like something Ford would do right away. "All I said was, 'Oh, I don't really think that's practical.' "
Tory stressed that it's the process that offends him, not the idea of reducing the size of council.
"What we don't need, what I just can't support, is change being rammed down our throats without a single second of public consultation and on top of that, done in the middle of the election period itself," Tory said. "You don't change the rules in the middle of the game. That is not right and that is not fair."
Tory announced he intended to move a motion to hold a referendum on the size-of-council issue. He said he didn't expect a referendum would prevent the province from shrinking council before the October election, but argued the public needs a chance to weigh in.
"That is a discussion I think should happen — with the people," Tory said, borrowing a phrase from Ford.
Tory also said he'd move a motion to consult lawyers about a potential legal challenge of the forthcoming bill, but also said he believes the province generally has wide latitude in municipal affairs.
Meanwhile, Ford defended himself from allegations that he hasn't consulted people about his plans, saying he personally spoke to thousands of people about it.
"There isn’t [sic] too many people that I know that wouldn’t want to trade in a bunch of politicians for $25 million," he said, referring to his cost projection for how much the reduction in size of Toronto City Council will save the city.
"I consulted thousands of people right across this city, and every person I talked to said: ‘You have to reduce the size of government,' " he said. "Nothing is getting done."
Ford went on to say that transit hasn't been built in Toronto in 12 years — neglecting to mention the opening of the extension of the university subway line last year, and the ongoing construction of the Eglinton LRT.
"Under David Miller [transit] never got built … Rob Ford wasn’t able to be build because it was hijacked by too many councillors. Under John Tory, nothing has been built on transit. A shovel hasn’t been in the ground," he said.
Ford said he ran on a commitment to reduce the size and cost of government — but did not directly answer repeated questions about why he said nothing about plans to make these changes during the election.
"Our proposed legislation will put a pause on changes brought in by the Liberals in 2016 without any consultation to create a new layer of politicians, elected regional chairs in York, Peel, Niagara and Muskoka," he said.
The rationale Ford gave for cancelling the elections of for chairs in those regions was: "The last thing the families, businesses and municipal leaders in these regions need is another layer of politicians, another layer of dysfunction."
However, Ford said his plans are to revert to the system that was in place until a legislative change in 2016, whereby the regional chairs were appointed instead of elected by voters.
Regional chairs in Waterloo, Durham and Halton regions will continue to be elected, as they were prior to 2016.
Ford was far more clear about his rationale for reducing the size of Toronto's city council: He wants to get things done.
"Good governance in any company says you should not have more than seven to nine people on the board. You could have 20 of the smartest people around the table, and nothing gets done," he said. "We’re going to get things done. We’re going to run city hall a lot more efficiently than before."