TORONTO – Toronto city council voted Monday to mount a legal challenge against Ontario’s decision to slash the size of the city’s council.
The legislation — known as Bill 5 — was passed last week and aligns Toronto’s ward map with federal ridings, cutting the number of city councillors from 47 to 25 ahead of a fall municipal election.
Premier Doug Ford has said the move will help council make decisions and deliver services “more efficiently and effectively” and save taxpayers $25 million over four years.
Toronto council voted 27-15 to challenge the Progressive Conservative government’s legislation, which also cancels planned elections for the head of council position in the regional municipalities of Muskoka, Peel, York and Niagara. The head of council in each region will instead be appointed.
“We have instructed city legal staff to challenge this monumental change to our city’s governance in the courts,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a statement.
“Challenging this legislation and the process used to introduce it is the right and responsible thing to do,” Tory said.
Tory spokesman Don Peat said the city will now take part in a Superior Court hearing on Aug. 31 and any other legal proceedings related to the legislation.
As Toronto council debated the issue, Ford told politicians from other municipalities across the province that he has no plans to cut their governments.
Speaking at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario’s annual conference on Monday, Ford said he has been getting questions about whether the province will chop the size of other civic councils.
“No, we do not — I repeat — we do not have plans for similar legislation in our near future,” Ford told the gathering in Ottawa.
Ford, a former Toronto councillor and failed mayoral candidate, said his time in city politics gave him insight into the problems of the municipality’s government, noting that its challenges are unlike those of others in Ontario.
“I would say that many of Toronto’s issues are specific to Toronto,” he said.
Tory said the timing of the provincial legislation — coming before the Oct. 22 municipal election — put the city in an unprecedented situation.
“The process by which this monumental change was made was wrong and unacceptable,” he said. “It is our duty to represent the people of Toronto and the best interests of this city at all times — and to make our position clear when we do not believe the actions of other levels of government are in our city’s best interest.”
He suggested in the meeting that a legal challenge, regardless of the outcome, could help define the lines between the province’s ability to legislate on matters affecting Toronto and “constitutional democratic principles.”
Coun. Joe Cressy argued that allowing the provincial move to go unchallenged would set a dangerous precedent, and suggested Ford’s motives were more personal than political.
“It’s vindictive, it’s bad policy — it’s because he is nothing more than a sore loser,” the councillor said. “He couldn’t win the mayoralty here, he couldn’t win the most votes in the provincial election here, so he decided to turn around and attack our city.”
The city’s legal team filed a confidential report with advice on a potential court challenge to councillors that was debated behind closed doors Monday.
City staff were also asked to weigh in on the logistics of switching back to a 47-seat council in time for the election, should the city proceed with a legal challenge and win.
The city’s clerk, Ulli Watkiss, said staff would need to map new voting locations and seek new permits for some, redistribute thousands of workers and rejig and re-test electronic information systems, among others tasks. She questioned whether the work could be accomplished in time for the election.
“My concern with the ever increasingly compressed timelines is that an error will be made,” and those errors could allow someone to challenge the results of the election, she said.
Council also voted to ask the clerk to push back the election date if necessary.
Ford, who lost the 2014 Toronto mayoral race to Tory, stunned local politicians and residents last month when he announced the council-cutting plan, which was not part of his election platform.
The premier has said Toronto’s council can debate a potential legal challenge if it wishes but noted that his government had already moved on the issue.
“They can talk about Bill 5 all they want,” he said Friday. “At the end of the day, we made a decision to make government run more efficiently here in the city of Toronto.”