Ontario government to review regional governments while expanding ‘strong mayor’ powers

In an effort to address Ontario’s housing supply crisis, the Ford government is revamping regional governments and expanding strong mayor powers. As Tina Yazdani reports, critics are calling the new bill undemocratic.

Just two days after municipal councils in Ontario have begun new, four-year terms, the Ford government has announced it will be reviewing six regional governments while further expanding ‘strong mayor’ powers.

“These proposals are bold I’m not going to walk away from that,” Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

“[The proposals] reflect the severity of the housing crisis that’s facing our province today and we need to cut through this NIMBYism and banana attitudes.”

In an announcement Wednesday afternoon, officials said facilitators appointed by the Ontario government will be “assessing” the Region of Durham, Halton Region, Niagara Region, the Region of Peel, the Region of Waterloo and the Regional Municipality of York.

They said the facilitators “will work with local governments to assess the best mix of roles and responsibilities between upper and lower-tier municipalities.”

When asked if the move could mean dissolving regional governments in certain areas, such as Peel Region where Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie called for her city to be a single-tier municipality, Clark didn’t rule out a potential move.

“I’m not going to presuppose the discussions that take place by the facilitator,” he said.

Under newly tabled legislation, dubbed the Better Municipal Governance Act, it would give Clark the power to appoint the regional chairs in York, Peel and Niagara for the 2022-2026 council term. Clark said the current chairs would be reappointed.

RELATED: Ford says ‘strong mayor’ powers coming to some other Ontario cities in a year

“We need to have consistency with the three municipalities because of their size and the opportunity to be able to hit our housing targets,” he said when asked why the provincial government is now moving to appoint the chairs versus leaving it to the regional councils.

“We know the three chairs, we’re confident that we can work with them.”

Clark billed the changes as needed to address housing issues and move provincial plans forward. He was asked about the government’s plans. In the June provincial election, specific changes weren’t spelled out in the party’s policy platform.

“On Oct. 24, you had literally every council in our province had housing as our priority,” he said, going on to say the changes are among the ways of reaching the goal of having 1.5 million new homes in Ontario.

Clark went on to say further changes would be coming to the recently announced ‘strong mayor’ powers in Toronto and Ottawa.

The mayors of those cities could “propose certain municipal by-laws related to provincial priorities and enable the council to pass these by-laws” with just one-third plus one of the council voting in favour. Under the legislation, Ontario’s municipal affairs minister would be able to dictate what qualifies as provincial priorities.

Clark was asked about that new ability to determine what should fall under this new authority.

“Our decision as a government was to provide provincial priorities in a renewed system,” he said.

“This is a new system for Ontario. We decided provincial priorities were the best way that we could move forward. If something emerges as a provincial priority that we want to include, we’ll have to have that conversation with our municipal partners.”

Lastly, the Better Municipal Governance Act would repeal Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act — a law to protect land in Pickering. Officials cited the need for housing and referenced proposed changes to the Greenbelt in Ontario.

RELATED: Ontario proposes to cut Greenbelt land for homes, add land elsewhere

Jessica Bell, the Ontario NDP housing critic and the MPP for University–Rosedale, said the bill doesn’t solve housing affordability.

“This bill is about bulldozing local decision-making so Premier Ford can wield more power. It is an affront to local democracy,” she said.

Interim Ontario Liberal Party leader John Fraser said the government currently has a big focus on municipal rules and accused it of not paying enough attention to strains facing the health care system.

“Consolidating power, that’s what it is… I’m not sure that’s something we immediately need right now,” he said.

“I don’t think they have a direction. They’re just kind of tinkering around the edges, we’ll change this thing, and we’ll have another bill. Do you think they have an aggressive legislative agenda?”

Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner called the bill a “frontal attack” on the rights of elected councils in Ontario, echoing that more attention is needed on hospitals and education labour negotiations.

“This is strong mayors on steroids, and this brings in minority rule,” he said.

All three raised concerns about removing protections in the Duffins-Rouge lands in Pickering.

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