Academic fears Strong Mayors Act will create ‘multitude of problems’

The roles of chief planners and city councilors in Toronto and Ottawa could be seriously compromised under Ontario’s new Strong Mayors Act, warns a Toronto academic.
The Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act was passed by the Ontario Legislative Assembly on September 8th.

It aims to give the mayors of Ontario’s two largest cities more power to speed up home construction, giving them veto power over regulations that conflict with provincial priorities, such as building 1, 5 million new homes in the province over the next 10 years. A council could override the mayor’s veto by a two-thirds majority vote.

The two mayors also have more powers to hire key city employees such as chief executives to prioritize provincial priorities, with statutory positions such as a city clerk being exempt.

Myer Siemiatycki, Emeritus Professor of Politics and Public Administration at Metropolitan University of Toronto, has taught courses in municipal government for over 40 years.

On August 29, he addressed a government standing committee to seek comments on the bill.

“I like to accentuate the positive,” Siemiatycki said, testifying. “Unfortunately, I have nothing positive to say about Bill 3. That’s because I don’t think it fulfills its stated purposes – and will create a host of problems.”

Siemiatycki was joined by representatives from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and the Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI) to offer criticism of the bill or only qualified support.
They countered praise from groups such as the Ontario Home Builders’ Council, the Ontario Home Builders’ Association, the Building Industry and Land Development Association and the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON).
Siemiatycki accused the new legislation of being simply a way for the government to deflect blame from its own failure to boost housing supply.
“The province has recognized that this is a very hot and difficult issue,” he said in an interview. “And I think the only reason we introduced this legislation is that the province wants to put the blame for any housing problem on the municipalities. They don’t want to be blamed for this problem.
The legislation creates the illusion that mayors and councils are holding back growth and development, Siemiatycki said. Although some councils have restrictive attitudes, the province has the tools and the responsibility to fix the problem.
“The province should create legislation to require inclusionary zoning across the province,” he said. “It should not be up to mayors to decide whether to overrule majority decisions of their elected council members.”
The government should also require that a minimum percentage of all new residential construction be affordable, and it should increase investment in nonprofit rental housing, the surest route to affordable housing, Siemiatycki said.

The bill gives the mayor the power to hire and fire senior city officials, Siemiatycki said, turning neutral, high-quality professionals into the mayor’s personal picks.

“The new powers will marginalize the input and voice of councilors and in doing so it really hurts local residents.”

Meanwhile, the mayor will come under pressure from the cabinet as well as builders and developers, who will go straight to the mayor’s office.

“The mayor will be bombarded with calls from provincial authorities and builders,” Siemiatycki said.

OPPI executive director Susan Wiggins told the standing committee that her association does not oppose the concept of a strong mayor system for large municipalities in Ontario, given that it has been tried and has operated in other jurisdictions.

The OPPI is providing “qualified” support for the legislation, Wiggins said in an interview, the caveat being that there is a separation between the mayor and the head of the planning department.

Wiggins said it is understood the chief planner is exempt from positions the mayor can hire and fire without consulting council.

“We said it can work if the right governance structures are in place so the board has real power,” Wiggins commented.

“It wouldn’t be a good concept if planners weren’t an exempt profession.”

RESCON Chairman Richard Lyall said in a statement that the Strong Mayors Act will help speed up municipal decision-making.

“Many of the systemic barriers to producing more housing reside in municipal zoning restrictions, red tape, and substandard departmental programs and practices that need to be modernized and digitized,” Lyall said.

“We are in crisis because there is not enough housing supply to meet demand. Bold action is needed to help mayors deal with systemic bottlenecks in the system and this legislation will help achieve that.

Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN