The power of one

He cast his eyes upon the crowd tittering about his brush with potential death mere days before. They were awestruck. 

There on the stage this past Monday was a modern-day Hercules, who swallowed a bee whole and lived to tell the tale. As the minions saluted and cheered that viral social media moment, he went on to school them in the power of one. One man, one woman – it matters not. It was to come to pass that a mayor would have strong mayor powers and build tens of thousands if not millions of homes. To that? Apparently, not one clap.

Bellicose as that description may seem, Premier Doug Ford’s address at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference was another warning sign of his disdain for local democracy.

For those unfamiliar with the “Strong Mayors Building Homes Act,” it gives special powers to large city mayors whose councils fail to toe the line with “prescribed provincial priorities.” In other words, if the premier calls he expects action. The act affects Toronto and Ottawa to start, but will add other municipalities as time goes on.

This new way of side-stepping local priorities was not a campaign pledge endorsed by voters this past June. Instead, we suspect it emerged from the same festering sewer of awesome ideas that saw this current government declare Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZO)at a greater clip than other previous governments. MZOs are orders whereby a minister of the crown overrides local planning authority to approve development without engaging the usual expert analysis or public participation. Local authority, local government – you know, those people just standing in the way of progress because they can. We find that mentality disturbing. Locals deserve a say in their community.

While Premier Ford may choose to point fingers at local politicians as the problem, the simple fact is the province sets the rules, always has. The government directs growth targets and municipalities are stuck to come up with a plan using currently-recognized methodologies within the planning community.

Granting special strong mayor powers to force the rapid expansion of housing hardly sounds methodical, nor does it seem wise.

Pundits have already started to speculate that this action will have little effect on the actual number of housing units that get built over the coming years. And in this age of following the science and the data, does the province or its municipal entities have hard data to understand what housing is needed? 

This idea that home ownership is the gold standard of housing does not pass muster when considering special needs, assisted living, seniors and a housing mix to address varying levels of income. The issue of housing is far larger than single family homes with picket fences as far as the eye can see.

It also sounds like a recipe for corruption, whereby good planning and solid investment take a backseat to who knows who and who has the influence to get approvals. Will “strong mayors” help in the battle to ultimately develop Highway 413 for example?

The most recent provincial election yielded the poorest voter turnout in history. The last thing we need is a further degradation of the public trust and participation in local democracy. Both voters and prospective councillors will wonder what the point is to voting, or even running for council, if the mayor has the sole power to set the budget to his liking and hire and fire senior staff. These things are currently weighed by councils and committees made up of knowledgeable and duly-elected representatives, not the prerogative of an individual.

When the concept was first floated we recall some people dismissing it as only for big city mayors and not really something we need to worry about here. After AMO, all bets appear off.

The power of one, is a dud. 

Local politicians need to say so.