Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Mayor's New Powers

On the surface, it's easy to see how extended powers for the Mayor of Toronto could be interpreted as a consolidation in favour of top-down control, and therefore an anti-democratic reform.


On the other hand, when one considers the reality of how municipal elections take place in Toronto, it's possible to see this as a pro-democratic move.

Presently, decisions in Toronto are made by 44 councillors and the mayor -- with one vote each. The councillors represent wards across the city with populations about half what you'd find in a federal or provincial riding. This sounds like it should represent an opportunity for representative democracy bubbling up from the citizens, but it doesn't work out that way in my view.

Torontonians are fairly apathetic when it comes to municipal government, and the result is that City Council seats get filled not on the basis of candidates' stands on the issues but rather name recognition and momentum. Get elected, get your name on signs, and help your constituents once every five years when they phone to say their garbage wasn't picked up. Do this and you're all set.

There are a variety of reasons that things are this way, but the bottom line is that too many people don't care enough to produce council election results that are truly meaningful.

The exception is the occasional mayoral election that (somewhat) captivates the public imagination through city-wide media. This happened in 2003, when David Miller, John Tory, Barbara Hall, John Nunziata and Tom Jakobek squared off in a battle people actually cared about. We conveniently ignored the facts that mayors have little power and the City has little money and engaged in debate over what Toronto should be.

This -- unlike the race for council -- is a real democratic test and is a sound basis for charting our municipal government's course. For this reason, there's some sense to giving the mayor more power to implement whatever he or she was elected to do.

The only other way I can think of to bring some real debate and decision making to Toronto elections is to break our councillors into political parties. I have traditionally been opposed to this measure for what I feel may be sentimental reasons. But I can better imagine Torontonians being engaged in council elections when they can relate to a city-wide slate of candidates with a well-defined election platform.


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