Queen’s Park Today’s publisher Allison Smith sat down with Matt Elliott, publisher of City Hall Watcher and Toronto Star columnist, to get his take on how the PC’s latest strong mayor move will shake out. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.) 

Allison Smith: You follow the machinations of Toronto city hall more closely than anyone else I know — probably closer than some councillors.

What’s your take on the province’s latest legislation, Bill 39, which will allow bylaws to be passed in Toronto with the support of just Mayor John Tory and one-third of council?

Matt Elliott: I was surprised about the one-third vote thing. We went through this over the summer with the first round of strong mayor powers with the veto and the ability to hire and fire senior staff, and I think people made some peace with that. Some people were not in favour of it, obviously, but it was like, ‘Let’s see how this plays out.’

There are no examples of other cities with strong mayor powers that have this one-third thing. You have some cities where the mayor just has power to do things, though. But this is a weird compromise where it’s like, ‘We don’t want to give the mayor unilateral powers. We still want him to have to go to council, but we don’t want him to have to clear the hurdle of getting a majority.’

Toronto Mayor John Tory has promised to use powers to pass bylaws with the support of just one-third of council — which he asked Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark to enact via Bill 39, Better Municipal Governance Act — in a “very, very limited” number of instances. The only time he would do it, he said, would be if he could not secure majority support from council. (Government of Ontario)

AS: Do you think it would make more sense for the province to just give Tory unilateral powers, rather than jump to what critics are calling ‘minority rule’?

ME: During the pandemic, Tory declared a state of emergency, which gave him the ability to act as council. That meant he effectively had the power for a while there to just pass stuff without having to go to council and get a majority vote.

So, you could pull something by saying, ‘Housing is an emergency in this province, and we want to give authority and temporary powers to make things happen.’ I think that might actually have played a little bit better than what the province proposed here.

Ultimately, the city is a creature of the province. We’ve learned that repeatedly over the last four years. If Tory wants something to happen without having to go through council, it’s pretty straightforward to just call up Premier Doug Ford and say, ‘Hey, can we talk about legislation that would impose this on us?’

So I’m really fascinated by how they ended up on this as the optimal solution to a problem that hadn’t even really presented itself yet. It was pre-emptively decided there could be a problem and this is the solution we need.

AS: Tory said he asked for this — why do you think he wanted the extra push?

ME: People who follow city hall identified almost immediately that the veto powers in the first round of strong mayors legislation would only allow the mayor to block things that council does. There was nothing that would have allowed Tory to make things happen over a council that didn’t want those things to happen.

But we just elected a new council. There are eight or nine new councillors. If I were in their shoes, I’d be thinking, ‘Hey, I haven’t even sat for a meeting yet. You don’t know that I’m some NIMBY who’s going to vote against housing stuff. And you need to overrule me?’

AS: Can you hypothesize on a scenario, given the current mayor and makeup of council, where these powers will come in handy to get new housing built?

ME: From the stuff I see coming down the pipe in terms of housing items on the council agenda, I don’t see anything particularly that’s going to present such a struggle for John Tory that he’ll need to wave his hand in the air and say, ‘Super veto!’

If you were to sit down and make a list of things that are preventing housing getting built in Ontario and Toronto, you’d get pretty far down the list before you got to ‘Mayor doesn’t have veto powers.’

And of course, the strong mayor stuff appealed to Premier Doug Ford because of his experience at city hall with his brother Rob Ford. However much this was about housing, more of it was — in the premier’s mind, I think — about righting wrongs from when he was a councillor and his brother was the mayor.

AS: In July, Queen’s Park Today reported on a poll circulated by the PC government’s go-to pollster Nick Kouvalis’ firm, Campaign Research. In it, he asked for voters’ thoughts on the province spending $1 billion to get an NFL stadium in Toronto, as well as spending $2.5 billion to build a new convention centre on top of an existing park.

As the powers the provincial government is handing Mayor Tory continue to grow, I keep wondering whether we’re building towards a surprise announcement like this.

ME: I think something coming out of the blue like that would actually be a piece of the puzzle that would make it make more sense to me why these mayoral changes have been pursued like they have.

There has been some movement around a convention centre. The Metro Toronto Convention Centre Corporation hired lobbying firm StrategyCorp to lobby city hall. So they have something they are thinking they need to convince councillors of.

We don’t know what that is, but if you get into the realm of speculation, the existing convention centre was talked about as a possible location for a casino in the past. Even without that on the table, using city land for some sort of modern convention complex, especially if that is parkland or green space, that’s the kind of thing a lot of councillors would have a real problem with.

I think the provincial priorities guiding when the mayor can use his strong powers are broad enough that you could make a case for almost anything under them. Ultimately, when you’re talking about housing, you could argue that, ‘To facilitate housing, we need transit and economic development and a job market and things like that.’ So it all sort of connects.

AS: On a different note, Tory has been basically begging the provincial and federal governments for a bailout. He says he needs a commitment of $2.3 billion by the end of the month, or risk service cuts and/or property tax hikes. How pertinent is this money to the city?

ME: Those are the public numbers. But those aren’t the numbers for what the city needs to just scrape by.

I think what is more likely to happen at this point isn’t a grand moment where the premier and the prime minister announce they will give Toronto everything it has asked for in terms of money to make its budget work. But you might see some cash here and there to at least let the city muddle on through the end of this year and the budget process for next year. There’s a lot they can do to kick the problem down the road