In my 11 years at city hall, I’ve found that council is very good at managing issues one by one but far less effective at managing the big picture. Instead of focusing on complex, city-wide issues that are critical to Toronto’s future like congestion, affordable housing and economic development, we spend most of our time debating neighbourhood issues such as the placement of hot dog carts.
I don’t think the problem is that councillors can’t think big, or don’t want to think big. I think the problem is that there are just too many of us. Council is simply too large to speak with one voice, too unwieldy to provide strong leadership on the big issues that affect us all.
So how can we change this?
Our next council ought to consider cutting the number of ward councillors in half, to 22 from 44. This would make council meetings more orderly and productive. As it stands, every councilor — all 44 of us — can place items on the agenda at meetings, and every councilor — all 44 of us — gets to have their say on everyone else’s items. You can see what happens: marathon sessions that occasionally erupt into shouting matches; substantive discussions that get mired in procedural minutiae. Toronto is a 21st-century metropolis that continues to be governed like a 19th-century town. Torontonians sense this, they know that their city is constricted by it, and they are looking for more.
With a smaller number of ward councillors, we should consider adding a number of at-large elected council seats. As it stands, the only member of council with a mandate from the entire city is the mayor. We need more of our elected representatives to be thinking broadly about Toronto as a whole, not about small constituencies within. At-large councillors could work with the mayor to set a strategic policy agenda for council, and provide the city with the cohesive, big picture focus that it so badly needs. Other cities, such as Vancouver, already have a system like this in place.
The next council could also ask the provincial government to amend the City of Toronto Act to allow all councillors and the mayor to be elected using a preferential or so-called ranked balloting system. Preferential balloting will ensure that a successful candidate achieves a majority of support from voters, thus giving council the clear mandate that it needs to make complex, strategic decisions. The province has already expressed a willingness to do this. All city council would have to do is follow along.
Finally, we could make much better use of our four community councils (Etobicoke York, Toronto and East York, North York and Scarborough) than we currently do by giving them the final say on local matters that are under their jurisdiction. As it stands, community councils have to run to city council for final approval of decisions like the installation of traffic control signals, the designation of fire routes and the endorsement of events for liquor licensing purposes. Community councils are competent to decide these matters on their own. Giving them that authority would allow the city to better leverage their local expertise and free up badly needed space on city council’s agenda for larger items.
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