Ontario Premier Doug Ford. King's Printer for Ontario, 2023.

What's Next for the Strong Mayor Powers?

By Fernando Arce

Will Toronto’s new mayor use the new “strong mayors” powers previously granted by Premier Doug Ford to former mayor John Tory? Should they? And for what?
These questions are important, but overshadowing them is Ford and his conservative government.

Powers bound to “provincial priorities”
Unlike U.S.-style “strong mayors,” who are empowered to act independently of their state’s governor, Toronto’s mayor is bound by the legislation to use these new powers for the most part to advance “provincial priorities.”
Translation: do what Ford wants, and not what he doesn’t. It’s like giving your kid money and forcing them to buy you
something you’ve been saving up for.
“So it’s not really making a municipal mayor stronger,” says Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus of politics at Toronto Metropolitan University. “It’s making them more able to enforce the will of the premier.”
The new Bill 3 limits the use of the new powers to policies that exclusively advance “provincial priorities.” Part of the other strong mayor legislation, Bill 39, grants the mayor additional power to pass bylaws of provincial priority with only one third of councillors, which amounts to eight. That’s the same number of people handpicked by the mayor to serve in their executive committee.
So far, the only provincial priority tied to the strong mayor legislation is housing, but Ford could change that at any time.
“I would say we are dealing with a doubly problematic formula to begin with: it’s undemocratic, and it strengthens the mayor’s ability to be the enforcement officer of the province,” says Siemiatycki.
The mayor also has some new powers independent of the province, such as the ability to appoint senior civil servants themselves and set the municipal budget with only very minor amendments allowed from councillors.

Who would use them?
Some have dreamed of what a mayor opposed to Ford’s agenda could do with the strong mayor powers, like blocking his Ontario Place privatization scheme or defunding the police and investing that money elsewhere.
But, if campaign promises are to be believed, that isn’t on the horizon.
In the mayoral race, the top candidates most opposed to Ford say they wouldn’t use the powers: Olivia Chow, Josh Matlow, and Mitzie Hunter. Ana Bailão, who is generally aligned with Ford, says she wouldn’t overrule council but would use the other powers. Mark Saunders and Brad Bradford said they would use them.

Will Ford revoke the powers?

In February, Ford told reporters that a “left wing mayor… would be a disaster.” With left-leaning Chow leading the polls in June, Ford has no doubt been planning his next move.
On the one hand, Ford could take the legislation away in a fit of rage if the mayor is using the powers to do things he doesn’t like.
And if the mayor isn’t using them, he might realize how embarrassing the entire situation is getting, and decide to just “let this sit and go nowhere,” says Siemiatycki.

Real strong mayor powers

In the U.S., strong mayors sometimes helped spur inter-municipal collaboration, according to a 2023 study by the Institute
on Municipal Finance & Governance. “A strengthened executive may allow the mayor to make credible commitments on behalf of the city in intergovernmental negotiations,” says Karen Chapple, director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.
For years, Toronto has been pushed around by the province. The city is, after all, a creation of the province, and the province holds all the legislative power, as we saw when Ford cut the size of Toronto city council in half during the 2018 election.
If he was serious about the concept of strong mayor powers, says Siemiatycki, “he would give mayors more financial resources and he would give them more authority and control over local decision-making.”
But for now, the strong mayor powers are meant to facilitate the mayor “taking orders from premier Doug Ford.”

This article appears in the Summer 2023 Issue.