Ontario big city mayors set to test out strong mayor powers within a year

Ontario’s big city mayors elected to a new term in office may soon have enhanced powers at their disposal to tackle tough issues like housing.

But experts say the use of so-called “strong mayor” powers may not be clear-cut, and their use may be limited by budgetary constraints and other factors.

Housing was a major election theme in municipal campaigns across the province, particularly related to affordability.

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government recently passed a law giving mayors of Toronto and Ottawa veto power over bylaws that conflict with provincial priorities like housing, and Premier Doug Ford says the powers will be extended to other cities in a year.

Monday night’s municipal election results mean Ford could be extending those powers to former foes in provincial politics, with former leaders of the NDP and Liberals elected as the mayors of Hamilton and Vaughan, respectively.

McMaster University political scientist Peter Graefe says it will be interesting to see how different municipalities use the strong mayor powers depending on local pressures on councils and from voters.

“I think how different (municipalities) are going to use their strong mayor powers will be a significant, important issue,” he said in a phone interview.

Use of the new powers may also be limited, Graefe said, because mayors with more power over budgets and appointments will still be working with limited financial resources to tackle issues like housing and homelessness.

“If the money is not coming from the province, there’s not much you can do in terms of actually moving the dial on this,” he said.

“Even if you have the right people in place, or even if you’re setting the budget, where are you going to find the money for housing? Are you going to move it all out of the roads budget?”

Premier Doug Ford congratulated the successful candidates in a social media post on Tuesday and a promised to work together.

“When Team Ontario works together, we’re unstoppable. Let’s get building,” Ford posted on Twitter.

A number of big-name mayoral incumbents in the Greater Toronto Area sailed to easy victories on Monday night.

Toronto’s John Tory, Mississauga’s Bonnie Crombie, and Brampton’s Patrick Brown were handily re-elected in their respective cities.

Housing was a major theme in Tory’s election night speech, with the re-elected mayor saying he wants to work with all levels of government on speeding up housing supply.  Tory has said he’s prepared to use strong mayor powers to get parts of his housing plan through council if needed.

Ottawa’s new mayor, Mark Sutcliffe, will also have access to the enhanced powers, but the former local broadcaster who will replace outgoing mayor Jim Watson has said he is not interested in the power to override council.

Political scientist Andrea Lawlor said Sutcliffe’s position on the matter “could change,” however, now that he’s been elected.

Lawlor, a professor at Western University’s King’s University College, said Toronto and Ottawa could serve as a blueprint for the powers ahead of the extension to other large cities like Mississauga, Brampton, and Hamilton, for which a formal date hasn’t been set.

“We could see that as soon as the next round of elections, or potentially even before, if we see it successfully leveraged in a city like Toronto,” she said.

Home construction was a major pledge by Sutcliffe, and affordability was a major theme for all candidates in the city’s campaign.

Both Brown and Tory referred to their cities’ hard-hit experiences through the pandemic, but took a forward-looking eye to economic recovery and growth.

The night represented the latest in a chapter of redemptions for Brown, who decided to run for re-election after he was disqualified from the federal Conservative leadership this year.

He had sought his first term as Brampton mayor after he was ejected as leader of the provincial Tories in 2018 under allegations of sexual misconduct, which he has denied. Since becoming mayor he has faced allegations of financial irregularities that did not stick strongly enough to hold him back from a wide victory over challenger Nikki Kaur.

Graefe said Brampton could turn out to be a “ground zero” for complexities that come out of strong mayor powers, noting allegations of financial and contract irregularities that Brown has faced during his first term in office.

“This sort of space for some conflicts and potential stories of malfeasance in a number of municipalities, I think, get much greater with those powers,” he said.

“That will be will be something to watch, but probably less about the cities themselves and more about how people come to judge this decision to really change the nature of municipal governance in Ontario for the first time in decades.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2022.

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