As Premier Doug Ford contemplates granting greater power to the mayors of Ontario’s largest cities, he may want to keep the story of Chicago’s parking meters in mind.
The Ontario Progressive Conservative government has yet to release details of its plan to implement “strong-mayor” systems in Toronto and Ottawa. But in his few public comments on the issue Ford has cited Chicago among the U.S. municipalities he’d like to emulate.
Many experts say there’s merit to the province’s argument that expanding the authority to big-city mayors could enhance accountability and allow municipal leaders to more effectively execute their mandates.
Yet even as Toronto seems headed for a shakeup that will give its mayor more sway at city hall, there’s a push on in Chicago to do the opposite, with critics arguing that insufficient checks on the highest municipal office there has at times been disastrous for the U.S.’s third largest city. In that sense Chicago’s experience could serve as a cautionary tale for Ontario policymakers about what happens when mayors become too strong.
“The argument for a powerful executive is you can get more done. The downside is, everything hinges on the judgment of a single individual,” said Joe Ferguson, who for 12 years served as Chicago’s inspector general, which is an independent city government watchdog. This year he launched a non-profit to review the Illinois city’s governance structure, and curbing the influence of the mayor’s office is one of its priorities.
Ferguson cites the parking meter fiasco is a prime example of the need for reform.
In a deal that has since become infamous, in 2008 then-mayor Richard M. Daley privatized Chicago’s parking meters. Private investors agreed to pay $1.15 billion (U.S.) to take over the parking system for 75 years, and despite the long-term implications of the deal, council had just days to review it before Daley pushed it through city hall.
Proceeds from the privatization allowed Daley to plug budget deficits without raising taxes for a few years. But a decade after the deal was signed, the investors had hiked parking prices and fully recouped their original investment. They stand to spend the next 60 years reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in profit, while the city is deprived of a valuable revenue stream for generations.
“That’s what an all-powerful mayor can do without the adequate mechanisms (to keep them in check),” Ferguson said.
It’s far from clear the Ontario government’s reforms will result in Chicago-style governance at Toronto city hall. Some observers are also quick to point out the mayor of Chicago owes much of their authority to political convention rather than authorities granted the office by law.
But Ford has said he plans to give Toronto’s mayor veto power over council decisions, which could only be overridden by a two-thirds majority. That would mirror Chicago’s system, and would be a change from the current regime under which Toronto’s mayor is just one vote on the 26-member council and has to assemble majority support for any initiatives.
One U.S.-style change that the Ontario government seems unlikely to emulate is allowing political parties at the municipal level. That could be a good thing. Dick Simpson, professor of political science at University of Illinois Chicago, said in the worst abuses in the Windy City have occurred when a united Democratic Party dominated council and other local government offices, leaving no effective opposition to the mayor.
“The office became too powerful because it combined the party and the mayor’s office, and mayors who stayed in office a long time became tyrannical,” Simpson said. But he believes that when sufficient checks are in place, “as a general matter, the strong-mayor system of government is a good one.”
Gabriel Eidelman, director of the Urban Policy Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, believes Toronto could benefit from expanded mayoral powers.
But he argues the council veto the premier has floated wouldn’t be the most effective change. Eidelman notes that in his eight years in office Mayor John Tory has rarely lost an important council vote, so a veto likely wouldn’t lead to different outcomes.
Instead of more sway over council decisions, Eidelman argues the mayor should have greater executive control over the public service. Under the current system, Toronto city staff are responsible for presenting the annual budget and other policy recommendations to council for approval. In Chicago and other cities, the mayor has the authority to submit a spending plan and propose other initiatives independent of staff.
Eidelman said Toronto’s staff-driven system is “backwards,” and doesn’t align with provincial and federal governments in which premiers and prime ministers use annual budgets to set out their priorities.
While Toronto’s mayor already has informal influence on the city budget, Eidelman argued that giving the mayor the explicit power to draft the spending plan each year would “(add) an element of accountability” by making it clearer to the public who is responsible for city financial decisions.
Eidelman also believes any strong-mayor system should give Toronto’s mayor discretion to appoint heads of city departments, which he says would make it easier for an administration to implement its agenda. Currently, council approves appointments of senior officials.
“If a ‘stronger’ mayor means strengthening the mayor’s executive powers … then that’s a helpful reform,” Eidelman said.
Others argue that unless the Ontario government is prepared to give Toronto itself more powers, expanding the mayor’s authority will only have the effect of making whoever holds the office a bigger fish in a too-small pond.
Kate Graham, a political scientist who teaches at Western University, said Toronto’s biggest challenges stem from the fact that the province has gradually downloaded responsibility for social services, housing, public transit, and other important functions onto the municipality without providing new revenue sources to match.
In June, Toronto council echoed that argument when it voted not to oppose the province’s strong-mayor proposal, but reiterated its request to the government to give it greater autonomy to raise revenue.
Successive Ontario governments have shot down calls to grant Toronto more taxation powers and Canada’s largest city remains largely reliant on the property tax base. Some U.S. cities have a greater array of options, including a municipal sales tax in Chicago and income tax in New York City.
“We don’t have weak mayors, we do have weak cities,” Graham said. “If the province wants to improve the ability of municipalities to solve problems, that is where they should focus their energy.”
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