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Letter to the Editor: Strong mayors legislation

Former Thunder Bay city clerk expresses concern about possibility of province's Strong Mayors Act legislation being extended to other municipalities and how it may affect local government
Letters to the editor

Letter to the Editor:

On this past Monday, voters cast their ballots towards forming new municipal councils in municipalities across Ontario. Other than some in Toronto and Ottawa, I’m sure few gave much thought to the implications of the new Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, 2022. It affects those two municipalities now.  

The Strong Mayors Act should be of great concern to us all, because it will be coming to the rest of us all too soon. Voters, I’m quite sure, did not consider which candidate for mayor would be the best mayor if that person could:

  • hire and fire the city manager and department heads
  • change the organizational structure of the municipal government
  • appoint chairs and vice-chairs of local boards and committees (including establishing and dissolving committees)
  • veto certain by-laws of city council
  • set the budget for the municipality
  • make such decisions with little ability to have them quashed or reviewed judicially 

The chief reason voters didn’t think of such things is that the government introduced this legislation in mid-summer and passed it in September with no public consultation and no consultation with key stakeholders. Given the speed with which this legislation was brought into law the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) and the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks, and Treasurers of Ontario (AMCTO), the two principle municipal organizations in Ontario, didn’t have time to set out official positions on the legislation. 

Since the Baldwin Act of 1849 — the first Municipal Act if you will — Ontario’s local governments have been subject to provincial legislation for their authorities and responsibilities. And from time to time the Province has tinkered, in small and also significant ways, with legislation affecting how local government services are delivered, managed and funded, as well as how they are organized – think regional governments and forced amalgamations. But few of those changes has so fundamentally changed the way that municipalities will be governed as the Strong Mayors Act has done.

The introduction of ‘Strong Mayors’ and the executive powers mayors will have in this new system, will dramatically change the dynamics of city council, the relationship between council and its administration and indeed the relationship between council and the community. 

Much of that impact will depend on the personality of the individual mayors and how they choose to exercise their new found powers.  Andrea Horwath, the newly elected mayor of Hamilton, has said she will always work with her council in a consultative fashion, she does not see herself unilaterally flexing the new muscles at her disposal.  Will all mayors be so inclusively minded?  

The success of any system that depends on the personality of one person should be regarded with concern and caution. It is not hard to imagine the conflicts that may arise should a mayor fire the city manager with no warning to her council, or the disruption of unilateral organizational changes. Debates on municipal budgets can already be contentious, imagine how they may unfold with the mayor setting the budget and its priorities and the council responding when it opposes the mayor. 

Do we need these changes?  Do we want these changes?

I would argue no to both, but we have not been given the opportunity to even consider such questions. Perhaps that’s the bigger problem here. The strong mayor model for municipal government can be found in the United States and Europe. The sky is not going to fall but municipal government is about to be fundamentally changed in ways unseen since the first councils were elected in Ontario some 170 years ago.  

John Hannam is a former Thunder Bay city clerk, past director of the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario and chair of its Legislation and Policy committee.

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