NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Premier Doug Ford is trying to settle old scores through the Progressive Conservative bill, tabled Monday, to slash the size of Toronto city council nearly in half to 25 seats from a planned 47.
"It appears that Mr. Ford is settling some political scores. It seems to me that he couldn’t get elected as mayor of Toronto, and now he wants to be the de facto mayor of Toronto in his corner office here at Queen’s Park," Horwath said of the one-term city councillor. "He is behaving like a dictator. He is behaving like a bully."
She highlighted the lack of public consultation on a move that Ford made no hints at during the campaign or his throne speech, except via vows to trim government costs generally.
"Being cut out of a decision around their local democracy is absolutely wrong," Horwath said.
The nine-page Better Local Government Act aligns Toronto's municipal wards with provincial and federal riding boundaries ahead of the Oct. 22 election. It also cancels the elections for regional chair that were slated to happen in Peel, York, Niagara and Muskoka, reverting instead to appointments for those spots.
Patrick Brown, Ford's political foe and predecessor as PC leader, was on track to run in Peel until he leapfrogged to a Brampton mayoral candidacy after news of the drastic change dropped last Thursday. Former Liberal cabinet minister Steven Del Duca was planning to run for chair in York Region.
Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said the abrupt announcement to shrink city hall falls under broader pledges to restore "accountability" and "trust" to government. He brushed off concerns about the chaos the move could cast on candidates who have poured time and money into campaigning, office space rentals and advertising since May 1, and who now face uncertainty about where to run or whether they still have a shot.
"We’ve reached out to the city staff, and I’m confident that we’ll be able to work out some of those transitional issues, given the fact that we will extend in the bill if it’s passed," Clark said, noting the bill pushes back the nomination deadline to Sept. 14.
"I don’t think anyone should be surprised that the premier and I and our candidates are looking at reducing the size and cost of government to make, in Toronto’s case, less councillors so they can make a more streamlined decision, they can make a decision that’s better and faster and with the priorities of the people," he told reporters.
Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter noted the government has no municipalities save The 6ix in its sights for ward reduction. "Why target just the city of Toronto?" she asked.
She acknowledged that in 2000, then-premier Mike Harris cut the council of a recently amalgamated "megacity" to 44 members from 58. It went ahead on that front in 1998 despite a referendum the previous year in which three out of four of voters opposed the merger.
"This is not a history that we want to see repeated in Toronto, when we talk about Mike Harris and creating the mega-city that created turmoil in the city of Toronto," Hunter said, invoking the spectre of cuts and cost-downloading under the last PC government.
"Is there going to be more downloading? Are other municipalities going to be affected? This government needs to come clean and talk about what its true intentions are to the people," she said.
In the house, former premier Kathleen Wynne called the Tories' "last-minute" legislation "vindictive," "perplexing" and "highly undemocratic."
Horwath pledged to fight the bill in debate and in committee, though she expressed doubt the government would allow much time for discussion at Queen's Park or through public consultation.
Bill 5 passed first reading Monday afternoon, with the Liberals and NDP opposed.