Toronto council dispute distracting from key issues, say candidates, voters

TORONTO — Until recently, traffic congestion and lack of affordable housing were expected to dominate Toronto's fall election, but now some candidates and voters are worried the fierce debate over the council's size is overshadowing the issues they consider vital for the residents of Canada's largest city.

The dispute between Toronto and the province, triggered by Premier Doug Ford's surprise move in late July to reduce Toronto council to 25 seats from 47, has been dominating the campaign — and headlines — for weeks.

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It is also the main issue Coun. Mike Layton says his constituents ask about as he campaign for re-election.

"Somehow our new premier has hijacked the City of Toronto election, not only by changing the rules halfway through but all anyone wants to talk about when you're at the door is his behaviour," he said. "They don't actually want to talk about the issues so you've got to start there and then pivot over."

Franklyn McFadden, 31, said he's disappointed the debate has shifted away from the issues that affect people's lives, such as public transit.

"If I'm waiting at bus stop in my neighbourhood at 5 p.m., there's a good chance I'll be waiting for at least three buses that are jam-packed full before I can even get my scooter on one of them," said McFadden, who uses a mobility device. "That's just one of many, many issues that are being left for the back burner."

John Sewell, a former Toronto mayor who has criticized the Progressive Conservative government's unprecedented use of charter's notwithstanding clause to move slash the size of council in the middle of an election, said the move could have long-lasting consequences.

"What Ford has done is sucked up all the oxygen," he said. "It's made sure that the election is meaningless and that the council that will be produced will have no credibility at all, that's the problem."

Sewell, who served as mayor in the late 1970s but remains involved in municipal issues, said the conflict between the two levels of government over the cut underscores another troubling point — the lack of co-operation on key files, many of the same ones that are not being discussed during the campaign.

"You need that co-operation to address the larger questions," he said.

The Ford government reintroduced its council-cutting legislation this week after a judge found the original law was unconstitutional. The Tories are also appealing the judge's decision, and a hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Amid the uncertainty, voters are asking a lot of questions about the electoral map, the riding makeup and who the candidates are, said Layton.

"When you have 110,000 doors to knock on you have to make great use of your time," he said. "When you have to spend the first five minutes talking about the changing rules, and if you're running in that neighbourhood or not ... that's a significant amount of time."

Environment Minister Rod Phillips, who once served as former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman's chief of staff, said those conversations can still take place before the Oct. 22 vote, noting that provincial election campaigns are 30 days long.

"I have a lot of confidence that between the many council candidates and the mayoral candidates that there will be a broad and fulsome discussion of the issues."

Ford, who is a former city councillor, has said Toronto council is dysfunctional and slashing it nearly in half will streamline decision-making and save taxpayers $25 million. The city has argued many of the challenges Toronto is facing are due to lack of funding from the provincial and federal governments.

Meanwhile, the official in charge of running Toronto's election has said it's becoming "virtually impossible" to ensure a fair vote next month.

Legislators will be called back to Queen's Park on Saturday at 1 p.m. to help speed up debate on the bill, dubbed the Efficient Local Government Act.

The New Democrats and the Liberals have vowed to introduce amendments to the bill that could potentially delay its passage.

The NDP said Thursday it will challenge the bill under rules that preclude legislators from introducing substantially the same bill twice in one session and bar the legislature from debating an item currently before the courts.

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