Premier Doug Ford is trying to fight Toronto City Hall, and on Monday, council tried to figure out a way to strike back.
But a divided city council struggled to reassert its authority following the provincial government's surprising legislation that would cut the number of councillors in the provincial capital from 47 to 25. In a 24–17 vote, council agreed to symbolically express its opposition to the ward reductions. Council punted the rest of the thorny electoral matters to a special meeting that will take place on Aug. 20, in the hopes it can have more of a say before provincial legislation that was tabled today passes.
The move from the province came midway through a municipal election campaign in which more than 300 people had already signed up to run in Toronto, and was announced one day before nominations were scheduled to be closed. City clerks said during the Friday council session that managing logistics for an election with only 25 wards will be extraordinarily difficult; there may be issues with printing ballots, refunding campaign donations, and ballots may have to be counted by hand.
The political chaos spilled over onto council's floor as the 45 existing members of council debated how best to respond to the unprecedented situation, and the mayor's office struggled to respond. On Friday morning, Toronto Mayor John Tory proposed a referendum on the issue, although the March 1 provincial deadline to propose a referendum had already come and gone. Critics lashed out at the mayor for what they saw as his meek response – council chose to debate a sawdust bylaw rather than the ward crisis first thing Friday morning – and the incident helped prompt former chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat to sign up to run for mayor at the last minute. Keesmaat's announcement has already drawn support from councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Janet Davis, with Joe Cressy saying he was excited by her candidacy too.
On Sunday, the mayor's office came out with a more forceful announcement, saying it would back a council motion to launch a legal challenge. But it was unclear how much clout the mayor could wield in the situation. Two of his four deputy mayors supported reducing the number of wards, as did one of his former deputy mayors.
"I'm not happy with the premier, at the 11th hour bringing it forward," said Councillor Frances Nunziata, normally a stalwart supporter of Ford.
Other councillors protested on the grounds that the premier was trying to supersede Toronto's authority.
"It's not about money," said left-leaning councillor Gord Perks, referring to the stated reason the premier gave for the move. "He wants to gut the things that make Toronto great," the councillor continued, citing various services the premier and council differ on, including transit, affordable housing and safe injection sites. Perks issued a call for action, imploring his colleagues to stand up for the city. "Our duty now is to speak up for Torontonians," rather than rolling over in deference to the province.
"The issues are different," protested Michelle Holland-Berardinetti, who argued that the duties of MPPs and city councillors are different.
But a bloc of right-leaning councillors backed Ford's call to reduce the size of council. "The referendum was on June 7," said Councillor Michael Ford, the nephew of the premier, referring to the date of the provincial election. The PCs did not make cutting council in half part of their election platform.
"There really isn't much we can do about this," said Giorgio Mammoliti, who supports reducing the number of wards, on the floor of council. He and several other councillors attended a press conference at Queen's Park to express support for cutting council in half, arguing it would be less dysfunctional. Asked if the councillor is part of the problem that he speaks of, the loquacious politician said, "Ask my wife."
While the meddling in Toronto's election lacks precedent, the federal government will not directly intervene. A government source told QP Briefing that they would not intervene on the number of councillors or the ward boundaries, as the province has clear jurisdiction over those matters.
With files from Christopher Reynolds