Toronto will go to the polls to elect its mayor on October 25 this year. There is a lot of media interest in mayoral candidates and scandals surrounding some of them. The incumbent mayor, David Miller, also attracted media attention and intense feelings among both his supporters and detractors. But is the mayor’s job really that important? What actual powers does the mayor of Toronto have? If we look at the law, the answer is rather surprising. Despite all the attention, the mayor of Toronto doesn’t decide much, and the city’s governance is mostly in the hands of the city council and ultimately the provincial legislature.
The word “Toronto” has two meanings: a place and a corporation. The second meaning refers to the organization that governs the city. This organization is a special corporation created by Ontario legislature through the City of Toronto Act. As a creature of statute, the city has only powers granted by the province. The same statute grants powers to the mayor and to the city council and authorizes the city council to delegate its powers to the mayor. That’s why to get a general idea of the mayor’s powers, you need to review both the City of Toronto Act and city council by-laws.
The city, the mayor, and the city council must exercise their powers within the limits set by Ontario legislature. All three owe their existence to provincial statute and can be abolished by provincial statute. The 1997 ruling in East York v. Ontario confirmed that municipalities do not have an “autonomous” constitutional status and are subject to the will of provincial parliaments. In that case, a group of Toronto residents and some of the municipalities making up the Metro Toronto area challenged amalgamation of cities around the old Toronto into the megacity where we live today. Their challenge failed and the appeal was dismissed.
In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that the city of Vancouver may not boycott Shell for its cooperation with the apartheid South Africa. The Court’s majority decided that such boycott was not for a municipal purpose as set by British Columbia legislation, specifically the Vancouver Charter, which is the equivalent of the City of Toronto Act. These cases show that municipalities and their mayors are subject to provinces’ will and must act within the authority given by provinces.
The word “mayor” appears only five times in the City of Toronto Act. The statute grants the mayor only two roles: the head of the city council and the “chief executive officer of the City.” In the first role, the mayor’s powers are “to preside over meetings of council so that its business can be carried out efficiently and effectively; to provide leadership to council; to represent the City at official functions; to carry out the duties of the head of council;” and to give the council certain information and recommendations. As the city’s CEO, the mayor must “uphold and promote the purposes of the City; promote public involvement in the City’s activities; act as the representative of the City both within and outside the City, and promote the City locally, nationally and internationally; participate in and foster activities that enhance the economic, social and environmental well-being of the City and its residents.”
The powers of the highly-contested mayor’s office appear almost ceremonial. The mayor doesn’t control the police, cannot influence legislation in his jurisdiction as Premiers or the Prime Minister can, and cannot issue executive orders. And the mayor doesn’t run the city’s operations: it’s the city manager’s job.
The mayor does have one truly great power, but only in emergencies. The City of Toronto Act allows the city council to delegate its legislative authority in limited circumstances. Under Chapter 59, Article VI of the Toronto Municipal Code, the mayor takes over the council’s legislative authority in emergencies. That’s what happened in 1999, when then mayor Mel Lastman called in the Canadian Forces after a massive snowfall in Toronto blocked ambulances from reaching patients.
All in all, Ontario legislature leaves it for the city council to govern Toronto. The council is like a corporate board of directors and the city manager’s office is like managers of a corporation. The mayor can’t do much without the council or the city manager. But the nature and the powers of the mayor’s office certainly make for a lot of publicity, which probably explains why there is so much hoopla over Toronto mayor’s elections this fall.