THUNDER BAY – In a symbolic but highly-charged vote on Monday, Thunder Bay’s city council decisively rejected Mayor Ken Boshcoff’s move to seek “strong mayor” powers from the province.
Boshcoff responded defiantly to the vote, saying in an interview after the meeting that he would file his request for the powers on Tuesday over council's objections.
Asked what message that would send to councillors, the mayor did not directly answer.
"Some of them said some nice things, but then they didn't vote for me," he responded. "So I don't know what message I got from them. That's the counter-response."
Boshcoff added he believed his colleagues’ refusal to endorse his request could sour his relations with council.
“There’s some severe strains today,” he said. “I feel quite ambushed, actually… [but] I will survive.”
Coun. Mark Bentz had made a similar suggestion during the meeting, saying, “If we don’t support [the mayor], he can still move forward, but that creates some difficulties I’m sure, in cohesiveness around the table.”
If Boshcoff secures the powers, as he appears set to do, he will be granted sweeping authority over city committees and administration, able to hire and fire top staffers and reorganize city departments, as well as a greater ability to shape the city budget.
In matters related to housing, he would be able to pass or veto bylaws with the support of just one-third of council.
In many cases, council would need a two-thirds majority to override the mayor’s unilateral decisions, while in some – like the hiring and firing of city staff – they would have no ability to overturn them.
Council found a two-thirds majority against Boshcoff’s motion Monday, voting 9-4 against, with only Couns. Aiello, Agarwal, and Giertuga backing the mayor.
Coun. Brian Hamilton was among those to argue the changes place too much power in the hands of one person, while emphasizing his concerns were not about Boshcoff specifically.
“Why I’m really opposed to this legislation is actually the vulnerability it puts on the office of the mayor, where lobbyists and aggressive people could get the ear of the mayor,” he said. “Potentially you could have the loudest player in the playground basically running the city, and to me, that’s very, very frightening.”
“Right now, you need to have a heck of a good argument to get seven votes around this table – and you should need to sharpen your pencil and bring a heck of an argument to get anything passed.”
Boshcoff has said he would use strong mayor powers rarely.
Asked Monday how the powers could be used to advance housing, Boshcoff gave the example of approving the extension of city services to support new subdivisions – a potentially controversial move, given concerns from some councillors about urban sprawl.
Premier Doug Ford announced the expansion of strong mayor powers to 21 new cities including Thunder Bay in August. The province had already bestowed them on 29 of Ontario’s largest cities, beginning with Toronto and Ottawa last year.
The move has been received with skepticism by many municipal leaders, with a number of mayors pledging not to use the powers.
Unlike Boshcoff, the mayors of other Northern cities including Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, and North Bay have argued the powers are not necessary to achieve housing goals.
The province set a goal of 2,200 new housing units for Thunder Bay by 2031, which would require the pace of new housing builds to accelerate by over 60 per cent compared with the past five years.
Boshcoff has said he’s optimistic that could be done, citing a regional mining boom, while others have called the target unrealistic.
Director of development services Joel DePeuter said it appears the city is actually "just on pace" toward the target in 2023, with over 200 new residential units built, but largely thanks to one "unusual" 50-unit apartment.
The city will be eligible for a slice of the province’s new $1.2-billion housing fund only if Boshcoff pledges to meet the housing target, earning strong mayor powers in the process.
Municipalities that achieve 80 per cent of their housing targets in a given year will receive grants that can be put toward “housing-enabling infrastructure” like site servicing, roads, and public utilities.
DePeuter shared a rough estimate Monday that the city would likely be in line for only $500,000 to $600,000 a year through the fund, an amount councillors called small in the context of the city’s budget. City manager Norm Gale cautioned that estimate was made "with low confidence."
Staff and several councillors argued the city had already taken steps to make building easier, including with a recent revamp of the city’s zoning bylaw, which DePeuter argued is contributing to rebounding growth numbers in 2023.
“Work’s been carrying on for some time and is, I think, contributing to the momentum,” he said. “Thunder Bay passed a new zoning bylaw… we’ve nearly completed 18 projects under the streamline development approvals fund.
“There has been a lot of work that has supported the numbers that we see now, and I think there’s evidence there when we see the higher numbers in terms of infill.”
Gale added the city is “not the only red tape,” pointing to the provincial building code and health and safety laws.
Coun. Rajni Agarwal, however, placed the blame for the city’s low growth rate squarely at the feet of the municipal government.
“There’s land, that’s one thing Thunder Bay does have, but no one is really building to the level they should be building, and that’s because of our red tape in our community. We have been told that repeatedly by many developers.”
“If we could fix it without strong mayor [powers], then we should have had robust building already. We don’t have that.”
In a report, staff suggested “there may be additional cost for staffing to support the mayor’s office as a result of increased requests and pressure” related to strong mayor powers.
At last week’s press conference, Boshcoff agreed additional staffing could be needed.
The province has also requested the city submit a housing pledge approved by city council by Dec. 15, outlining strategies and actions planned to meet the provincial target.