Strong mayor proposal weakens Torontonians

Michael Walker

December 6, 2005

Over the past few years, the highly valued neutrality and objectivity of senior staff at City Hall has been methodically threatened and undermined; this proposal would effectively kill it.

At first blush, it’s easy to look favourably on proposals that have the intent of strengthening the role of the mayor of Toronto. Of course, Toronto’s mayor should be strong, and effective too.

Last month’s proposal by the relatively obscure “Governing Toronto Advisory Panel” is an attempt to put this ideal into practice, but with potentially devastating consequences.

The report, entitled The City We Want, the Government We Need, was authored by a three-person panel selected personally by Mayor David Miller.

Approved in principle by the city’s policy and finance Committee over my objections and those of former mayor David Crombie on Nov. 29, the panel’s proposals would fly in the face of some fundamental principles that have guided Toronto’s government for decades.

One of the key panel proposals is to allow the mayor, instead of council, to personally appoint, and dismiss, the city’s top bureaucrat. This would effectively politicize the position, and, in the process, threaten the neutrality and non-partisanship of the entire civic service.

In turn, that deprives us all of the kind of fair-minded, professional advice we expect from public servants, free from political interference. It also means that the civic service would increasingly carry out the wishes of the mayor, rather than the entire council.

Over the past few years, the highly valued neutrality and objectivity of senior staff at City Hall has been methodically threatened and undermined; this proposal would effectively kill it.

Another proposal is to allow the mayor, instead of council, to personally appoint or change the chairs of the city’s standing committees. The impact would be to effectively create a “Mayor’s Party,” and serve as an open invitation to the introduction of party politics at City Hall. If that is the route we intend to go – a route I oppose – then we should debate it openly rather than letting it slip inside the back door.

More important, it would truly diminish the role of the individually elected councillor by creating a partisan voting bloc and eliminating the time-honoured tradition of consensus building by the mayor around individual issues.

Third, the panel proposes a four-year rather than three-year term for councillors.

Why? The best influence that citizens have over the council that represents them is the accountability of an election. To stretch the term to four years weakens and worsens that accountability, disengaging the people of Toronto from citizen involvement even further than they are now. It seems to me that it is premature even to consider such centralization of power in the hands of the mayor before we have a chance to consider the province’s new City of Toronto Act.

What this all comes down to is greater powers for one mayor at the expense of 44 duly elected councillors.

In turn, that means less influence by local people through their local councillors, a move that would fly in the face of the grassroots democracy that has served Toronto well for decades.

Michael Walker is Toronto city councillor for St. Paul’s, Ward 22

 

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