When it comes to city council size matters big time

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Pradip Rodrigues

This week’s ruling against the Province of Ontario’s plan to slash the size of Toronto city council in half or rather stick with the current number of councillors was blocked by an Ontario judge Edward Belobaba. This should really be a worrying trend of activist judges subverting the will of Ontarians who recently voted in the PC government. In his ruling, the Judge excoriated Ford’s Progressive Conservative government saying it “clearly crossed the line” with its Better Local Government Act, which aligns municipal ward boundaries with provincial ridings, cutting the potential number of councillors from 47 to 25 after the Oct. 22 election.

Judges have now become the de facto opposition not just here in Canada but in the USA as well. Liberal-leaning judges can be counted upon to overrule the will of the majority of Ontarians. For another recent example, the temporary blocking of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. What is the point of a political party having a majority of seats in the house when most decisions can be so easily challenged in the courts? These days a political party doesn’t even need to win an election because they can in fact get their agenda by sitting in the opposition benches and threatening court actions against decisions they oppose and of course they have the able backing of a legion of NGOs and other citizen activists who can be counted upon to launch legal challenges and hurdles that can frustrate, delay or scuttle any decision regardless of the cost and the consequences. At the stroke of a pen, a judge can overturn the decision or plan made by a legitimate government elected in a free and democratic process, thus thwarting the will of the millions who voted the party into power.

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Increasing the size of Toronto city council makes no sense economically and even less sense according to most business models. A municipal councillor in Toronto earns above a $100,000 and the cost to the taxpayer by having more councillors will run into millions of dollars each year. Furthermore it is highly debatable whether having a larger council will really be good for the city.

I have heard talk about it being time to increase the number of voices in council, specifically those belonging to ethnic minorities. On the radio ebullient activists were pointing out that this ruling would finally bring diversity to city council. Since there are just a handful of councillors who belong to visible minorities, the antidote to this is to increase the number of wards by re-drawing the map. This is the easiest or rather laziest way to address the issue of better representation.

Six wards have a populations ranging from 70,000 to 97,000 and soon with increasing density, more wards are going to more residents. So does it mean that in the years to come, the number of councillors will keep increasing?

To put things in perspective, New York City has 51 members from 51 council districts throughout the five boroughs representing a population of 8.1 million.

London England, has 33 council boroughs and the councillors are responsible for strategic planning, policing, the fire service, most aspects of transport and economic development. Over 8 million live in that mega-city.

Toronto currently has a population of under 3 million.

Having 47 councillors will only serve to make council even more dysfunctional. Larger council means more debates, more time wasted and it will be harder to arrive at a consensus for even the smallest of decisions.

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It will only end up bloating bureaucracy and the number of employees on the city payroll.

All over the world, corporations are trimming staff, re-organizing and streamlining systems so as to make quicker decisions and improve efficiency. At the best of times Toronto council takes unusually long to reach decisions that end up costing millions of dollars more as a result. There are numerous examples of this happening.

Some activists seem to think that increasing the diversity alone will ensure the city is better run and represented. From a social point of view, it is a wonderful idea but there are a few simple ways to achieve it which will be a lot cheaper- term-limits for city councillors, something that has been resisted by city councillors all across the country.

Last year Toronto city councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon declared she would not run in the 2018 municipal election. She won her seat in 2010 with a promise that she would only serve two terms in the position and she stuck to her promise. Currently five Toronto city councillors have a combined 139 years serving in council. Maria Augimeri, Ward 9 has been councillor for 32 years and has no interest in calling it a day.

Frances Nunziata of Ward 11 has been serving 29 years while John Filion, Ward 23 has been around 26 years.

If any activist was truly keen on improving the diversity on Toronto’s city council, they would be pushing hard for two-term limits for councillors and create a mentorship program for young Canadians from minority communities that would give them the tools required to be effective city councillors.

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A diverse city council could easily be achieved by pushing for term-limits that would eliminate the incumbent advantage and allow those with limited means to compete in a level playing field.

While most of the conversation about city hall and its councillors seems to revolve around giving a voice to those new Canadians and people of color, no one seems to be discussing ways to make city council more effective. Improving efficiency and decision-making doesn’t seem to be important at all. It has all the makings of a social justice initiative on the public dime and seems to be more about optics- making city councillors more reflective of the residents of the city.

The irony is that today more new immigrants and people of color are being pushed out of the city by unaffordable housing. The biggest challenge facing Toronto is really that the cost of housing which threatens the diversity of the city in other ways. Rich foreigners and affluent Canadians often paler in complexion end up edging out new Canadians, refugees and others who cannot afford to live and raise their families in the city. Diversity over time will be threatened despite having 47 councillors or even a 100 in the future.

While the city will continue to reflect diversity in the workplace, its residents will comprise of the comfortably rich and of course tenants who struggle to afford ever-increasing rents. Having 47 councillors is unlikely to bring solutions to these intractable problems. -CINEWS

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