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'They all want to hold on to their power': Ford fires back at councillors criticizing Bill 39

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford accused councillors who have criticized further strong mayor legislation of wanting to “hold on to their power.”

The comments were made at a news conference in Brampton Wednesday morning in relation to questions about Bill 39, also known as the “Better Municipal Governance Act.”

Ford told reporters the legislation was not “undemocratic,” as some critics claim.

"Having a councillor that scrapes in with 3,000 votes and has the same voting power as the mayor, that's what's trampling on democracy,” Ford said. "They all want to hold on to their power.”

“At the end of the day, it's the mayor that’s standing in front of the microphone like I do, answering all the tough questions, being held accountable. He's responsible for running the city and for him to have one vote. That's just not acceptable.”

Under the proposed legislation, the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa will be given the ability to propose and amend bylaws related to provincial priorities with a vote of more than one-third of council. In Toronto, this would mean nine out of 25 councillors would need to support the mayor’s agenda.

Usually, in order to pass anything in city council, a majority vote is required.

The Progressive Conservative government first tabled Bill 39 in mid-November, touting it as yet another tool to help get 1.5 million homes built in the next 10 years.

“As a former mayor, I would be the first to acknowledge that these proposals are bold, but I believe that boldness is exactly what Ontario needs to be able to end this housing supply crisis,” Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark told the Legislature on Tuesday night.

“The proposals in this bill reflect the severity of the housing crisis that Ontarians are facing today and the need to cut through this incredible ‘not in my backyard’ mentality that’s in our province.”

At the moment, the one-third vote would only apply to proposals related to provincial priorities, which have been defined broadly as being anything that relates to the building of housing, including construction and maintenance of related infrastructure such as transit and roads.

‘A LITTLE STRANGE’

Speaking with CTV News Toronto, Alison Smith, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, called the legislation “a little strange.”

“No other elected level of government in the country has this power,” she said. “It's interesting to see a government that is as big as this, getting powers that no other government has, that in a lot of ways are very kind of goes against democracy, goes against accountability, goes against the sort of norms of elected government.”

That concern has been echoed by opposition parties and city councillors, who have called the move undemocratic.

That concern has been echoed by opposition parties and city councillors, who have called the move undemocratic.

On Tuesday, 15 city councillors—representing more than half of Toronto’s elected representatives—wrote a letter to Clark and Ontario Premier Doug Ford asking them to reconsider passing the bill until further consultations can be done.

"We are writing you today because we are concerned that we have not had a chance for input on the governance of our city or to weigh in on the impacts on the checks and balances of power that would result from the loss of majority rule at Toronto City Council,” the letter reads.

"Toronto City Council should be governed by majority rule, and any changes to Toronto's governance should be decisions made by City Council and local residents."

The week before, activists and at least one city councillor requested the mayor host a special meeting on the provincial legislation—a request that was denied.

The legislation has the backing of Tory, who said he was the one who “raised the change” with Ford. The mayor has said in the past that he will always try to reach a consensus with council and that he would only use his veto on matters of citywide importance.

Tory has already used his strong mayor powers to appoint a new city manager.

The biggest question is whether Bill 39, in conjunction with other strong mayor powers provided by the provincial government, will actually help get housing built as the government claims. While Smith says Ontario definitely suffers from a housing supply problem, she isn’t sure giving mayors the power to pass proposals without a majority vote will have much impact.

“There are zoning decisions that local governments are in control of that are getting in the way of the development of different types of homes,” she said, noting the focus should be on affordable housing, family housing and supportive housing.

“I think it's unlikely for that to get built through just sort of zoning-type decisions, or the type of decisions that the mayor can do or council can do on their own, without the support of other levels of government.”

She added the province has already given the government powers to increase housing, such as overriding municipal zoning and allowing more than one unit on a single residential property.

There has also been concern regarding the province’s priorities—which at the moment are limited to housing—and whether they may change in the future, ultimately giving the mayor more power over a variety of files.

“I think that there [are] also some concerns that if the priorities change, or if there's a different mayor who is a little bit more reckless—and Toronto has recent experience with that—what does that mean for the governance of the city?”

Under the previous strong mayor legislation, council can override the mayor’s actions with a vote of more than two-thirds of its members.

In addition to giving mayors stronger powers, Bill 39 would give the province the authority to appoint regional heads of council for certain municipalities.

Regional chairs are often either appointed or elected during a general vote or by a vote of elected representatives; however, the legislation would allow the minister of municipal affairs and housing to appoint the chairs for the regions of Niagara, Peel and York for the current term.

Clark has previously confirmed he intends on reappointing the existing chairs—Jim Bradley in Niagara, Nando Iannicca in Peel, and Wayne Emerson in York.

“I feel very strongly that we need to have consistency with these three municipalities because of their size and the opportunity to be able to hit our housing targets,” he said at the time.

Under the same legislation, the government would the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act in order to open up more Greenbelt land and “assist in removing barriers to building much-needed housing in Pickering.”

Bill 39 is expected to pass by end of day on Thursday.

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