Is Toronto a perfect democracy?

Post by John Deverell in

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CityCaucus.com presents a new guest editorial from John Deverell, a retired Toronto Star journalist and a past president of the Southern Ontario Newsmedia Guild, as well as Treasurer of Fair Vote Canada.

democracyToronto, Canada’s largest city, has some megacity problems and little willingness to examine them closely.

Mayor David Miller suggests the difficulties are obvious and the solution simple. As in most cities broad responsibilities (which in Ontario include social assistance and public housing as well as public transit) are overwhelming the city government’s narrow capacity to tax and spend.

Miller says Ottawa and the provinces should simply raise and send buckets of cash to Toronto and every other cash-strapped city in Canada. He never explains why the senior governments will want to tax so the city councils can decide how to spend.

Looking past that perennial obstacle, many also wonder whether the Toronto city government is capable of managing wisely even its current $8 billion budget, let alone the requested additional billions from on high. Miller himself has argued that that Toronto Council lacks any overarching vision, that most councillors are parochial by habit, and that they should surrender many of their prerogatives to a strong executive Mayor such as himself.

In 2006 Queen’s Park amended the City of Toronto Act to provide additional taxation powers for the core of Ontario’s megalopolis and, in 2009, a full public review of City of Toronto governance.

The Dalton McGuinty government is now pretending that the public review requirement can be met by having interested parties e-mail their suggestions to Jim Watson, Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs. Toronto Council and the Mayor’s office have greeted the province’s gagging gambit with complicit silence.

Apparently the incumbent politicians at both levels can’t imagine any improvement in the structure of Toronto government. It is perfect – or as perfect as they want it to be.

Among the questions City Hall and Queen’s Park clearly prefer to avoid:

  • Why is Toronto voter turnout under 30 per cent in some low-income and immigrant Toronto wards and under 40 per cent overall?. Is this level of popular disengagement from the processes of government desirable? Inevitable?
  • Why is it illegal, during three years of every four, to campaign to replace a city councillor?
  • Why is all public financing of municipal candidates devoted to assisting the incumbents?
  • Why are municipal political parties not allowed to organize and participate openly in Council business and elections?
  • Who represents citizens who did not vote for their ward’s councillor?
  • Can a lone councillor represent every person in his or her ward equally and fairly on all major issues?
  • Why can’t Council replace a Mayor who has lost its confidence, or set effective limits on one who has it?
  • Who is politically responsible for city decisions and non-decisions? The Mayor with one vote in 44? The Councillors? Which ones?
  • If citizens were ever to want a significant change in council direction how could they gain effective voice?
  • Why, with most avenues of normal democratic accountability effectively blocked, does Toronto Council call itself democratic? 

To address these questions and more some of us are planning to ask a court to order a serious public review, just as the law promises.

Those wishing to anticipate the court order should express themselves directly to Jim Watson jwatson.mpp@liberal.ola.org or Dalton McGuinty at http://www.premier.gov.on.ca/feedback/ with copies to Toronto media outlets.

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