Rivers: How many elected official do we really need?

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

September 08, 2018



It’s that same old problem. Too many doctors leads to too many unnecessary MRIs and surgeries. Too many police and you’ll have to start watching your speed on the 407. And we all know that too many cooks spoil the broth. So it’s not hard to see where our fearless premier was coming from when he decided to chop the number of Toronto’s elected offices in half.

Being swon in

Members of Parliament: we elect them, swear them in and hope they do the job.

Our federal leader once mused that he admired China’s spin on democracy. The public elect representatives to the National People’s Congress (NPC) and then the NPC pretty much appoints everyone else, including the municipal leaders. When you think about it, that’s not much different from the Electoral College appointing Trump or the Supreme Court appointing GW Bush. And it is pretty much how our Senators get their appointments.

The kicker is that roughly 1.4 billion people are represented by less than 3000 NPC elected officials – roughly one representative per half a million constituents. That is a far more miserly representation than Mr. Ford has decreed for Toronto at 1:100,000. So how does business actually get done with almost 3000 people in the big room in Beijing when 40 something elected officials were way too many people for efficient conduct at Toronto’s city hall?

Perhaps Toronto’s problem was its leadership. Wasn’t the premier’s younger brother in charge when Doug was a city councillor? And perhaps with all the time he had to devote to smoking crack cocaine, drinking and driving, cursing and high school football coaching, mayor Rob just didn’t have enough time left over for effective leadership.

FIGHT Ford knocking over council member

Rob Ford knocking over a council member during a Toronto city council meeting.

And Rob Ford became famous as ringmaster of a city hall which turned into a circus and a city which became the biggest joke on the planet. It is hard to command respect and lead with dignity when you’re also the top clown. Doug Ford is right! There were probably at least two too many representatives around the city table back in those days.

But he’s wrong in that it was just about too many Councillors, but the antics and performance of some of them that should be drawing the fire. And clearly the lack of rules of procedure that allowed such clownish or boorish and tedious behaviour to carry on. Doug Ford would not be the first rocket scientist to come up with a brilliant solution to the wrong problem, throwing the baby out with the bathwater in the process.

Toronto has taken the premier to court over his new law but just about everyone expects him to win. That is unless the judge determines Ford’s actions, overturning the apple cart midway into a duly authorized election, were driven by personal or political motives, vengeance and/or gain. After all this really stinks. Ford blind-sided everyone, jumping to this hasty action without any shred of having researched, discussed or allowed debate on this policy.

And perhaps Ford’s relatively limited political education or experience has contributed to this impulsive initiative. Perhaps he doesn’t appreciate that Councillors are elected to do more than just rest their butts in council chambers and spend their time trying to be heard saying almost exactly the same thing their colleagues to the right and left have already said.

Councillors are also there to help the public deal with problems the city can fix. Ironically Mr. Ford and his brother, to their credit, were renowned for being tirelessly accessible and responsive to their ward electorate. This new law will make it more difficult for the city’s taxpayers to get that kind of help when they need it.

Then there is the matter of cost savings, a straw horse if ever. Twenty five million dollars over the next five years? It’s a promise just so deja vu – recall the savings Mike Harris promised once his pet amalgamation had been completed. No thinking person really believes this back of the envelope calculation of potential savings. In any case once more paid staff are hired to assist the fewer Councillors meet the needs of Toronto’s millions of taxpayers, there would be precious little left over.

And if saving tax payer money was the issue then why not save big time? There is an estimated billion and a half dollars which we waste every single year by maintaining the anachronistic and discriminatory publicly funded separate school system. Ontario is just one of three provinces left which still publicly funds Catholic education in this country. That puts us in violation of the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and in the bulls eye of criticism and condemnation from even the United Nations.

And while on the subject of delivering education more efficiently wouldn’t there be savings by eliminating the boards all together and having the municipalities pick up those responsibilities? It’s no secret that trustees get the lowest voter attention at election time because unless you have children in school your interest is understandably limited. We have built an entire political structure around our schools when the curriculum comes from Queen’s Park and the rest is child’s play – hiring a principal and maintaining the schools.

Bateman high school

Rivers suggests that schools be added to the job municipal Councillors do. Would that keep Bateman open?

One should ask why the city couldn’t integrate the education responsibilities into their mandates. Now that would save at least the cost of the board head offices. And planning for schools might be better integrated into official and other planning processes. City planners would be more obligated to consider the impacts of new developments on schools and possibly avoid some of the issues that Burlington residents ran into as they saw their schools threatened with closure earlier this year.

By the way, one representative per hundred thousand residents when applied to Burlington would mean two wards and a mayor. And who thought they were inadequately represented at city hall with the current lot – some of whom were in office back when I ran there almost a quarter century ago?

Finally there is a school of thought that municipal politics is a potential training ground for those aspiring to rise up to the provincial and federal upper levels. In fact Doug Ford, Kathleen Wynne and Cam Jackson all got their start in local politics, for better or worse. Who knows but with a smaller number of city council seats at the time he ran, Doug might not have been even elected, family name notwithstanding.

Rivers hand to faceRay Rivers writes regularly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was once a candidate for provincial office in Burlington.  He was the founder of the Burlington citizen committee on sustainability at a time when climate warming was a hotly debated subject.   Ray has a post graduate degree in economics that he earned at the University of Ottawa.  Tweet @rayzrivers


Background links:

Ford’s Plan –   Blame the Councillors –    The Right Size

Ontario Municipalities –    School Districts –    Catholic Schools

Return to the Front page
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

4 comments to Rivers: How many elected official do we really need?

  • Ray Rivers

    Mike – thanks for your comment. But this law of Ford’s wasn’t about bureaucracy – it was about representation – and as the judge noted when he turned it down:

    “Because it was passed in the middle of an election campaign, it breached the freedom of expression of municipal candidates…. and ….For some councillors it nearly doubled the size of the population they represent — from an average of 61,000 people per ward to almost 111,000. That, Belobaba says, “breached the municipal voter’s right to cast a vote that can result in effective representation.

  • Mike

    Less is more, when it comes to bureaucracy of any kind, especially government. Ford make a slight mistake on the regional elections, he should have just removed that layer of government completely. The municipalities around the GTHA don’t need a 2-tier government any more. Regional services that make sense, can be managed through a common services board and the services contracted where it makes sense (i.e. waste management).

  • Susan L.

    This is the second time in 20 years the Province has cut the number of Councillors in Toronto in half. Doug Ford said there are too many Councillors spending a lot of time arguing and getting nothing done. It was also done to save money.

    In 1998 under Mike Harris, the Ontario Government decided to amalgamate Etobicoke, Scarborough, York, East York, North York, and the City of Toronto into one. The idea of Amalgamation was for “cost-efficiencies” through centralizing services.

    One of the savings was the number of municipal politicians representing the various boroughs dropped from 100 to 45.

    As a result, if Toronto wants to build a new parkette, Scarborough thinks, “What is it going to do for my constituents, the people in Scarborough?” So Toronto has to get involved with side deals to get the votes they need. Time is wasted and Councillors are voting on things that don’t affect their constituents.

    As I see it, all Councillors should vote on Metro Toronto’s responsibilities such as the police, the TTC, traffic, waterworks etc. And the former boroughs should only vote on things like parks, speed bumps, garbage pick-up, snow removal etc. There would be separate budgets for each borough to work with. That would cut down a lot of time Council spends debating issues that don’t affect their own constituents.

    This is not as simple as cutting the number of Councillors in half, but I don’t believe in simple answers to complicated problems.

  • Hans

    “…savings by eliminating the boards all together and having the municipalities pick up those responsibilities…” might be a bit of a stretch but municipalities could certainly take over the school board’s fixed assets management. That could potentially eliminate the problems associated with acquiring land for new schools, disposing of closed school properties, and maintaining school buildings.