Rory Nisan: Whether used or sheathed, the mere presence of this weapon can wreak havoc on a municipal administration

By Rory Nisan

April 3rd, 2024



We should have been more vigilant.

When Premier Doug Ford was handing out “strong mayor” powers in 2023, there were no protests and little criticism over an apparently anodyne amendment to the Municipal Act.

Those powers made clear the premier’s intuition on local government: mayors should run the show and a concentration of power is a good thing.

The power to approve budgets and bylaws without majority support on council is an abrogation of the core democratic principle of majority rule. Frustratingly, those powers cannot be delegated, according to the legislation.

What can be delegated to all of council is the power to hire and fire senior staff, including the city manager.

Do not sleep on this one, especially when combined with the budget and bylaw power.

Whether used or sheathed, the mere presence of this weapon can wreak havoc on a municipal administration like Burlington’s. It not only undermines local democratic institutions, but potentially also creates a municipal administration rife with the opportunity for dysfunction as staff may be in constant fear of the strong mayor and being “next.” They risk being defunded or defenestrated if they don’t say yes to the strong mayor’s every whim.

And once this path is beaten, it is much harder to regrow the grass. Staff may look to other municipalities for work to get out from under a strong mayor, or not bother submitting their resumes to a strong mayor’s city hall when there is an opening.If I cannot have an equal say on the budget nor on the hiring of the city manager, if the mayor alone is able to change the entire organization to suit them, why have city councillors at all, Coun. Rory Nisan asks.

Numerous mayors, including Guelph, Halton Hills, Kingston, Kitchener and Milton, identified the risks to local democracy as well as their own reputations and delegated powers.

Others found the siren song to be too much to resist, and either laid down the law unilaterally or, like in Burlington, kept the powers for a rainy day.

That’s why I drafted the motion that has now been unanimously supported by Burlington city council to request Mayor Marianne Meed Ward delegate those strong-mayor powers. The mayor has thus far declined to take a position on delegation of powers and so council has given her the deadline of our April 16 council meeting to respond.

Thousands voted in my election, and I am accountable to all my residents. If I cannot have an equal say on the budget nor on the hiring of the city manager, if the mayor alone is able to change the entire organization to suit them, why have city councillors at all? Who would want that job?

Burlington council is also officially requesting the premier rescind these undemocratic privileges.

Some, including the premier, will say that we need strong mayors to get housing built. However, there is no actual connection to “getting it done.” A NIMBY mayor can leverage strong-mayor powers to do less for housing if they apply the powers shrewdly, and allowing mayors to hire and fire senior staff gets us no closer to shovels in the ground.

Others may point to Mayor Andrea Horwath employing strong-mayor powers in Hamilton to approve an affordable housing project. Even if the intended outcome is commendable, the door is now opened wider for future deployment of strong-mayor powers to overrule duly elected councils, a dangerous precedent for the entire province.

Finally, claims that the mayor is accountable at the ballot box every four years and so they should have strong-mayor powers is a superficial take on local government. Representative democracy relies on strong institutions such as city councils, where distributed power balances competing interests, leading to better outcomes.

The premier is also accountable and oversees municipalities, but we don’t want him governing municipalities directly — the same goes for mayors. We have city councillors for a reason: they are the closest to the ground, providing the most representation. They are the local voice.

The history of the premier at Toronto city council, where his brother’s powers were stripped in 2013 in what the now-premier declared at the time to be a “coup d’état,” is hard to ignore.

Premier Ford has been known to back down from bad ideas when exposed. Mayors across Ontario can correct the premier’s judgment, delegate powers back and build trust with the community. This starts in Burlington with Mayor Meed Ward, who as chair of Ontario Big City Mayors can show leadership and do the right thing.

Local democracy is the best kind of democracy. Let’s keep it that way.

Gazette publisher’s note: Interesting that Councillor would choose a newspaper from a different city to get his message out when there are three online newspapers that have significant readership.  Councillors are the closest to the ground, providing the most representation. They are the local voice.  Right on Rory.  How many people in Burlington subscribe to the Hamilton Spectator?

Rory Nisan is a deputy mayor in the City of Burlington. Prior to being elected to city council, he was a foreign service officer, during which he represented Canada at the UN, NATO and the Community of Democracies.

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6 comments to Rory Nisan: Whether used or sheathed, the mere presence of this weapon can wreak havoc on a municipal administration

  • Anne and Dave Marsden

    With return of access to governance material provided by our new Clerk and Deputy Clerk that was removed by former Clerk Kevin Arjoon we believe we have now been given the opportuity to deal with many issues that have affected the best interests of Burlington families and businesses for the last decade at least. We are hopeful that the April 16, 2024 council meeting kicks off a new era of transparency and compliance with the legislation that with the exception of the strong mayor legislation has been put in place to protect taxpayers financial and physcial well-being. We urge as many of you as possible to be in attendance at the April 16th Council meeting and after it is all over do whatever we have to do to have our Minister of Municipal Affairs and Premier ditch this anti-democratic. ridiculous legislation. He has back pedalled before, with enough of us demanding it, he can and will do it again.

  • Tom Muir

    I have many more reasons for supporting this petition, and telling people about it and reasons why.
    I have my own self-appointed “Strong Councilor}” in my Ward 1, Councilor Galbraith, wielding latent arbitrary power to refuse to represent or communicate with me. I have my own independence of mind and he does not like that.

    Memo: From me to Galbraith; December 10/22
    I did not receive notice from the Councilor Galbraith about the December 6/22 Statutory meeting on the Coletara development proposal. These notices are supposed to be in the November newsletter and I didn’t get one.

    Please explain.
    Thanks, Tom Muir.

    From Kelvin Galbraith; and Jessica Wilding.
    December 11, Auto reply

    You will receive no further communications from my office.
    Hopefully that explains.

    I wrote the Mayor asking her if this arbitrary behaviour, with no reasoning, was okay with her code of Councilor Conduct. She replied; yes, if it was “deemed necessary”, without any reasoning, or due process, at the sole will of the Councillor and after the fact. She basically approved it, and gave me instructions on how to represent myself.

    She also said her Office did not have the resources to look into it.
    I’m still not getting any communication.

    This is an example of how power corrupts, and how it spreads like a contaminant and grows.

  • Gary Scobie

    I am glad that my Councilor has publicly spoken out in this article as to why he and two other Councilors put motions to Council, directly to the Mayor, to delegate all responsibilities back to full Council that can be delegated within the Strong Mayor legislated framework.

    His points and opinions speak strongly to the dangers of accepting Strong Mayor Powers in Ontario, whether used aggressively, on certain occasions, sparely or not at all. Just by existing, Strong Mayor Powers, when accepted cast a pall over Council over-sight, staff commitment and loyalty and citizen engagement.

    I too wish that online news sites like the Burlington Gazette were included in the distribution of this article, but am glad that it can be shared here.

    As an aside, I grew up in Dundas which was not part of Hamilton then. I was a Spectator carrier as were my younger brothers. Back then every house on our routes subscribed. Would have been similar in Burlington. 35 cents a week back then meant everyone could afford it. Not so these days. I haven’t subscribed for 44 years in Burlington, yet I just did on April 1st when they offered a special $24 for one year digital subscription. I want to see the Burlington City announcements when they come out as well as some Hamilton and area news. I have no idea how many Burlington subscribers there are today for the Spec, but nothing like the old days.

  • Penny

    It would be nice to hear from the other councillors who supported this motion.

    Perhaps an additional Ward newsletter before April 16th?

  • Lynn Crosby

    I was glad to see this article today in the Spec. I do subscribe and I believe many Burlington citizens do. With the demise of the Post (no loss imo), many read the Spec for hard copy (and also online) news. The Spec has long had a large Burlington readership.

    Considering the ridiculous article posted there by the Mayor on Monday – and seemingly every time the paper dares to print anything critical about her – I was doubly glad to see this from Nisan. The Spec is in danger of losing Burlington readers by their lack of coverage of Burlington politics lately and their seeming unwillingness to critique our mayor and council when warranted,, as their excellent journalist Scott Radley does covering Hamilton City Council. It seems clear that Joan Little has practically been muzzled and when she isn’t, cue another complaining self-serving piece by the mayor in response.

    I too took particular notice of Nisan’s words cited in your headline about what can happen inside the administration with abuse of strong mayor powers.

    I’m glad this was written and published. I agree he should send it to the Gazette and Bay Observer too.

  • Caren

    I totally agree with this article. It is now time for our Mayor, Marianne Meed Ward, to step up and do the right thing for all residents in Burlington. Return Democracy to our Burlington City Council members by relingrishing their voting rights, which is what they were duly elected to do. Give a voice back to Burlington residents thru their elected officials now!

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