“It is just no way to run a railroad,” TTC chair Karen Stintz said after she was outgunned by Mayor Rob Ford’s allies in a highly political vote that resulted in the firing of TTC general manager Gary Webster last month. And watching Stintz lead council to dissolve the commission this week—removing all of the mayor’s allies in the process—commenters could be heard muttering a variation: This is no way to run a city.
“Who’s in charge of Toronto?” is an increasingly difficult question to answer, as the mayor has slowly seen his control over the municipal agenda evaporate. Many City Hall watchers expect that council may further weaken the mayor, potentially even stripping his influence over the executive committee that serves as his cabinet.
This is all good fun for the substantial number of Torontonians who hate Rob Ford the way Ford hates streetcars. But it does raise some questions about the nature of authority at City Hall. After all, if the mayor isn’t elected to control the agenda at City Hall, what is he there for?
As John Lorinc of Spacing wrote this week, “Ford is the mayor, and will be until 2014. He won by a solid margin in an election with a historically large turnout; real political authority stems from that accomplishment.” Comparing last month’s vote to overrule the mayor’s wasteful subway strategy with the vote to dissolve and reappoint the transit commission, he adds: “The coalition opted to release the emergency brakes. It doesn’t follow that they now get to drive the train.”
Tackling this point directly, journalist John Michael McGrath wrote a blog post suggesting that Toronto is in the midst of what political scientists call a “legitimacy crisis.” The mayor is the only member of the municipal government elected by the city at large; therefore, he seems to have the legitimate moral authority to govern the city. But the provincial legislation that actually governs Toronto—our municipal equivalent of a constitution—grants the mayor almost no power. He is one councillor, more or less like the others. What special powers he has derive almost entirely from various bylaws council itself passed just a few years ago and can repeal. Council reigns supreme.
Moreover, councillors themselves have mandates to represent their constituents and do what they think is best for the city. So council has the legal and apparent moral authority to govern, too.
Confronting this situation, McGrath suggests introducing a party system and essentially replacing the toothless presidential-style role of a directly elected mayor with a parliamentary-style mayor appointed by council itself. In this scenario, whichever party held a majority of seats on council would see their leader become mayor, ensuring that he or she would always have majority support on council. If the majority of councillors lost faith in the mayor, they’d vote to install a new mayor. Legitimacy questions gone.
However, it’s not clear to me there’s a problem in need of solving here, unless it’s the rather recent impression that the mayor is elected to be a boss rather than a leader. The competing mandates at City Hall right now reflect the messiness of democracy. Under normal circumstances, a mayor will lead the team by building a coalition—often issue-by-issue—that represents a majority of the councillors representing the majority of the citizens. Traditionally, council will defer to the big-picture mandate of the mayor. Indeed, the current council did this for a year, approving virtually everything the mayor formally brought before it in 2011.
Other mayors (Miller, Lastman) have seen council fight back: They reacted to their stumbles by negotiating and rebuilding a coalition. Ford has proven incapable of negotiation and compromise. A plurality of citizens liked what he said in the broad strokes during the election campaign, but now that those vague notions have been turned into concrete plans, he needs council to sign off before implementation. All signs indicate he hasn’t really tried to gain their support, because he sees compromise as some kind of evil. He hasn’t realized that, by design, compromise is a key part of the job description.
If the mayor wises up and abandons his my-way-or-the-highway style, councillors have an obligation to work with him. But if he refuses to fulfill his role, it is their obligation to act as a check on his presumptions of authority. That’s not a problem with the system—it’s a benefit of it.