Shrink Toronto Council?


That's what the fiesty little paper, the Toronto Sun, suggests. (no link to the online version of the article is possible, I'm afraid)

A bit of history here: When the province of Ontario amalgamated Metropolitan Toronto and its six member municipalities into a single city, back in 1997, city council had 57 members. This number was increased to 58 in order to give the former borough of East York a meaningful community council membership of 3.

The province stepped in again before the year 2000 election. In a move widely seen as slapping down a tempestuous newborn, Queen's Park abruptly adjusted the ward boundaries to conform with the boundaries of federal and provincial ridings. The 22 seats were then divided in two to produce 44 wards. Now the Toronto Sun says that the province should "finish the job", force Torontonians to elect just one councillor per ward, and shrink council down to just 22 councillors and 1 mayor. As a side benefit, you'll put 22 pesky politicians out to pasture.

The Sun raises some good points. There is no doubt that the current council has been the most fractuous and dysfunctional since Mayor Mackenzie decided to settle his grievances with the provincial government through armed insurrection. The Sun also points out that the excitement of the current race for mayor belies the fact that the election asks us to select just one more councillor, who chairs council meetings, votes only to break ties, and has no special powers beyond the force of his or her own personality to push forward his or her vision. It is a lot harder to push forward one's vision in the face of 44 possible opponents than it is with just 22.

But the Toronto Sun is, once again, being simplistic. Reshaping Toronto's ward boundaries to match those of provincial or federal ridings is tidiness for tidiness sake that happens nowhere else. Witness, for example, how Prince Edward Island elects four members of parliament to Ottawa and 32 to Charlottetown. I don't know the size of Charlottetown's municipal council, but I'm betting it's higher than four. And why is it that 22 wards are enough to manage Toronto's affairs, but Mississauga can't make do with just 5 (the number of ridings within that city)?

The levels of government exist for a reason. Power is split along these lines because some things are more effectively managed at certain levels. It takes 301 members of parliament to manage Canada because they don't face the issues that come forward to dog the 103 members of Queen's Park, or the 44 councillors-plus-1-mayor that sit in Toronto's City Hall. Indeed, there is a good argument to be made that municipal government is the closest to the people it serves since it is municipal government that decides the quality of life on your street. Even though municipal elections have the country's lowest turnout, people are more likely to take an active interest in the events of City Hall since it's City Hall they go to in order to get licenses, pay municipal taxes and utility costs. These aren't big decisions, but they're numerous, and city council has to be more accessible to its electorate than the provincial and federal legislatures.

The flaws of Toronto's city council are not due to the number of councillors present, but the quality of those councillors. Before 1988, the City of Toronto functioned a lot better with a lot more councillors. True, these councillors were compartmentalized into six smaller municipalities, but there were few calls to shrink the size of the councils then, or even amalgamate them into one. Even when the 1997 city council sat with 58 members, it wasn't nearly as dysfunctional as today's 44. If councillors are obstinate, immature or just plain rude, the correct thing to do is to elect new councillors, not less of them.

The problems facing city council also have a lot to do with the intensity of the issues they are dealing with. Toronto before 1995 was occasionally starved for cash, but it received ample help from the provincial government and had the power to raise its own resources (a.k.a. taxes). Since the Harris Tories were elected, millions and millions of dollars of provincial responsibilities were downloaded onto the cities (Toronto moreso than anyone else) and the power for the cities to raise their own revenues was curtailed.

Politics is the natural method by which society survives on limited resources. By working together and subverting some of their desires, individuals within society are guaranteed life and some happiness. But if limited resources are reduced to none at all, society breaks down. Given this, is it any surprise that Toronto's city council now resembles a pit of half-starved tigers?

Reducing the number of councillors does increase the likelihood that the infighting will stop and decisions (including some very tough ones) will finally be made, but it also increases the likelihood that the new council will not be representative of the people of Toronto. One councillor serving 113,000 voters is less likely to respond to an individual grievance than, say, a P.E.I. member of the provincial legislature, who is responsible for just 5,000. A smaller council that is starved for cash is more likely to conform to the wishes of the provincial legislature than it is its own electorate.

And even if the smaller council does solve the problem, what's next? The time will come -- maybe not tomorrow, but someday -- where a single city council is responsible for the municipal issues affecting the whole of the Greater Toronto Area. Will we then expect a council of 22 councillors and 1 mayor to respond to the wishes of five million Torontonians? Or will we realize that government that small for a city that big is just plain silly?

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