Ontario’s new government is reportedly planning to redraw the City of Toronto’s ward boundaries and cut the number of city councillors from 47 to 25.
Premier Doug Ford is expected to announce the plan on Friday, the Toronto Star reported on Thursday, citing unnamed sources within the Progressive Conservative government.
The reported move comes after Toronto city council was officially expanded to 47 wards from 44 in time for October’s municipal elections, as recommended in an independent consultant’s report.
Cutting the size of council would likely necessitate changes to the province’s Municipal Elections Act, which could have an impact on communities throughout Ontario.
The Star’s report comes on the eve of a deadline for candidates to register for the municipal election on Oct. 22.
Ford has scheduled a news conference for Friday morning, just hours before the 2 p.m. ET deadline.
Swift reaction from councillors
Some councillors were quick to denounce the idea, including Coun. Gord Perks, who warned it could throw this October’s municipal election into chaos.
Perks points out the boundaries of the current wards were the result of years of consultations that heard from thousands of Torontonians. It also recently prevailed despite being challenged at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) and in court.
Ignoring all of that, Perks said, shows “horrible disrespect” to local democracy.
“Doug Ford doesn’t care about the people of Toronto, or the courts,” he told CBC Toronto.
“If Doug Ford wanted to be the mayor of Toronto he should have done that.”
Ford had planned to run against Mayor John Tory, but bowed out to successfully run for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party before becoming premier.
He was a city councillor representing Ward 2, Etobicoke North, from 2010 to 2014 while his brother, the late Rob Ford, was mayor.
Ford, who also tangled on a wide range of issues with Perks and other members of council while Mayor Ford battled a series of high-profile scandals, often advocated cutting council in half, saying it would save taxpayers a large amount of money.
But there won’t be dramatic savings for local taxpayers. The 2018 operating budget for Toronto city councillors is $23 million — which makes up a tiny percentage of the city’s $13 billion total operating budget.
Perks said he believes Ford wants these changes to take hold before the Oct. 22 election, but it’s unclear if that would even be possible given the complexity of the election process. Hundreds of people have already declared their candidacies.
Perks said changing the Municipal Elections Act would have to go through the Ontario Legislature and could result in a shakeup in other Ontario municipalities.
Perks refused to speculate on whether the new PC government would support the move, but suggested Ford shouldn’t even try.
“He’s got a province to run, he should focus on that,” Perks said.
Other councillors have also spoken out.
Coun. Josh Matlow called it “anti-democratic” and “reckless” and said such changes would cancel an election process that’s already started.
Coun. Janet Davis tweeted that it “is a gross misuse of power.”
Councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Joe Cressy also spoke out on Twitter.
Wong-Tam told CBC Toronto called the plan “extremely anti-democratic” and described it “as a takeover of Toronto.”
“This greater concentration of power does not give and deliver better government,” she said. “He will speak in populist platitudes about saving taxpayer dollars, but it’s going to come at the cost of the erosion of the democratic process.”
The councillor said she felt Ford’s reported move was “an affront on our local democracy” and added that it would not bring Toronto closer together.
“It’s going to make things worse for our city,” she said. “This is a form of amalgamation, which we already lived through in 1996.”
Official Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath also slammed news of Ford’s reported decision in a statement.
“It appears that Doug Ford cooked up a backroom plot to use his new power to meddle in municipal elections. He didn’t campaign on it. He didn’t consult people on it,” Horwath said.
“It’s clear that Mr. Ford wants a smaller number of councillors to have more power, fewer checks and balances, and less accountability. This is obviously a move to make it easier for the premier to control Toronto City Hall.”
Some councillors support change
But the purported plan has also drawn support from some councillors.
Coun. Jim Karygiannis, who has previously called for municipal boundaries to be aligned with federal ones, was ecstatic.
“Hell yeah, bring it on. Bring it on,” he said when he was reached by phone on Thursday.
Karygiannis suggested the only councillors concerned with the change are those aligned with the NDP, or those afraid of losing their seats. (Despite council having no party affiliations, many councillors picked sides in the June provincial election.)
He also downplayed concerns this would mean less representation for those living in growing downtown wards, suggesting there’s no problem dealing with more constituent demands.
Coun. Justin Di Ciano thanked the premier on Twitter and said changing the wards “makes sense for so many reasons.” Di Ciano also responded to critics on Twitter.
Mayor John Tory has yet to officially react to the report, but his office released a statement Thursday night saying Tory will “be making a major statement to reporters Friday morning at City Hall.”
Ford to cancel regional chair elections, report says
The Star also reported that the Ford government will cancel planned elections for regional chair positions in two Greater Toronto Area communities — Peel Region and York Region.
That move would put a damper on the political redemption hopes of Patrick Brown, whom Ford replaced as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives.
Brown, who stepped down as Tory leader in January amid allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denies, had thrown his hat into the ring to become chair of Peel Region.
Horwath said reports that Ford is cancelling those regional elections “are deeply chilling.”
Representatives for the Progressive Conservative government did not immediately respond to The Canadian Press’s requests for comment late Thursday.
The Toronto Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief Robert Benzie broke the story and will speak with Matt Galloway on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning Friday at 7:10 a.m. ET to discuss it.
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