On September 8, 2022, the Canadian province of Ontario’s Legislative Assembly passed Bill 3, Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, 2022. The bill, which received royal assent by Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell later on the same day, marks a significant change in the municipal governance of two of Canada’s largest cities, Toronto and Ottawa, by altering the role of their mayors.
The measure had been introduced in the legislature on August 10, 2022, by Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark as one of the first pieces of legislative business of the recently reelected Progressive Conservative provincial government led by Premier Doug Ford, a former Toronto city councillor.
Ontario’s municipalities are creatures of the provincial government (under section 92(8) of the Constitution Act, 1867) and do not have constitutional status. They are established by either the Municipal Act, 2001 or, in the case of Toronto, the City of Toronto Act, 2006 and govern through the use of bylaws concerning their delegated powers, which are passed by municipal councils.
Ontario’s 444 municipalities are currently governed through what is sometimes termed a “weak mayor system.” Under this system, mayors chair council meetings and represent their city in ceremonial and civic engagements, but are essentially primus inter pares (first among equals) on the council, with their vote carrying no more weight than that of another councillor. The role of mayors in a legal sense is quite limited, as demonstrated by sections 225 and 226.1 of the Municipal Act, 2001, though depending on the incumbent, they may exert more or less informal influence on the council or the public.
Bill 3 gives the mayors the power to appoint officials of the municipality’s public service, with the exception of certain positions such as integrity commissioners, ombudsmen, police chiefs, and public health officers. It empowers the mayor to appoint the chairs of committees of council and to decide which issues or resolutions should be brought forward for council debate. The bill also gives the mayor the power to propose the annual municipal budget and to veto decisions of council concerning provincial priorities, subject to a veto override of two-thirds of council votes. The province plans to set out its priorities in regulations and has indicated that these priorities may include “building 1.5 million new residential units by 2033, or the construction and maintenance of infrastructure that supports new housing, including transit, roads, and utilities.” While the amendments directly affect the City of Toronto, the City of Ottawa is not specifically mentioned, and the changes to the Municipal Act, 2001 would apply to it as a municipality designated by the minister through regulation.
During debate in the legislature, Minister Clark stated that “[p]riority projects simply take too long to get through municipal councils and through committees. To be truly effective for their communities, mayors need our support. They need to be empowered.” According to CBC News, Toronto Mayor John Tory, who is running for reelection in October 2022, welcomed the move, but underscored that he remains committed to working with the council. However, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who is not running for reelection, denounced the move and called on candidates for mayor to pledge never to use the powers included in the bill.