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The problems with democracy

“Rumours of the death of Transit City have been greatly exaggerated.” –Toronto Councillor Joe Mihevc, former vice-chair of the TTC

According to lawyer Freya Kristjanson, an expert in municipal governance, Mayor Rob Ford did not have the right to cancel the Transit City plan without council approval. In an article in today’s Toronto Star, Kristjanson says that generally, executive and legislative powers rest with full council, in a “weak mayor-strong council” system. The City of Toronto Act (2007) requires that any act approved by council must be rescinded or amended by a subsequent vote of council. That includes Transit City. The legal firm of Cavalluzzo, Hayes, Shilton, McIntyre & Cornish, who produced the report, says Transit City was approved by council in 2007 as part of the Climate Change, Clean Air and Sustainable Energy Action Plan. “After that, City Council considered and voted on the necessary elements of the program as they came before council.” So when Mayor Ford signed an MOU with the province pursuing his “subways only” alternative plan, he was acting without legal authority. The lawyers’ report says that council must vote on the MOU for it to be valid; until then, it is only an agreement in principle.

The legal ramifications of Ford’s decision, made on his first day of office in December 2010, are yet to be seen, as are the economic costs (the unofficial estimate is $65 million). When Ford announced his intention to cancel Transit City, city councillors asked the Mayor to put the matter before council, but he refused, denying that the plan ever had council approval. My Toronto readers surely remember that Ford rode a wave of local support to victory, and a provincial election was to be held a mere 10 months after the municipal election; there was significant momentum, legal issues notwithstanding, propelling Ford’s rash decision.

Transit advocates like myself are interested in any policy or procedure that might restore a more balanced transit plan to the City of Toronto (kudos to Marcus Gee at The Globe and Mail, whose frustration at the City of Toronto’s lack of transit infrastructure foresight was unmistakable in “Toronto’s transit planning: No way to run a railway”, Saturday, January 27, 2012).

“Transit planning in Toronto is a colossal, humiliating failure. It is hard to imagine how any city could make a better hash of it…A city cannot act like this and expect to build a decent transit system. Rapid transit requires long-term planning, firm, consistent leadership and huge amounts of money. Cities that do it properly come up with a plan looking decades into the future and stick to it. Toronto? Toronto plays politics, cancels projects in midstream, draws up plans only to rip them up and delays, delays, delays.”–Marcus Gee, The Globe and Mail

But at the heart of this procedural debate is how little most of us know about municipal governance in Canadian cities. All of us, whether we are city councillors, planners, electricians, teachers, service workers, or students, need to familiarize ourselves with municipal and regional governance as it concerns service provision, local by-laws, and local budgetary decisions. Without a certain level of ignorance of our most basic legal principles (or an unwilingness to defend them, take your pick) Ford would never have been able to sign the fated MOU. Yes, legal principles on governance seem dry and uninteresting, and to be fair, the City of Toronto Act is only a few years old, so residents might be forgiven for not knowing all the details. But almost every aspect of our lives, from whether we can get our children into day care centres to whether our snow gets plowed on schedule, depends upon the division of powers between municipalities, the provinces, and the federal government. While Ford’s supporters allege that the defense of weak policy is a reliance on legal procedure, the office of Mayor compels adherence to specific legal procedures. Ford knows that, which is why his decision to cancel the Transit City plan hinged on his denial of its approval by council. Presumably, provincial Premier Dalton McGuinty is also familiar with these procedures from his career as a lawyer; yet, the MOU remains.

Maybe we need a new CBC series on the soap opera that has ensued since Ford took office. “…after DaVinci’s City Hall, tune in for Ford Twinmayor: Riding the Gravy Train.”

Update: Toronto City Council will vote at a special meeting on Wednesday, February 8th on whether to tunnel the entire Eglington line or bring the eastern end to the surface, using the savings to introduce light rail on Finch and Sheppard Avenues.


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