Big Questions for Toronto's New, Smaller Council

Now more than ever, Toronto needs a city government that is prepared to exercise bold environmental decision-making. But after a mid-election slashing of Council seats, Toronto’s new, smaller Council will first have to decide how to govern.

Toronto’s New, Smaller City Council

On December 4th, the new City Council will take their seats at City Hall. With only 25 councillors plus Mayor Tory, Council Chambers is going to have a lot of empty seats. Despite this significant loss in political representation, they must still find a way to govern our city.

Put simply, there are not enough Councillors to fill all the responsibilities on committees, agencies and boards, and there certainly aren’t enough staff in the Councillor’s offices to handle the caseload of a population that doubled overnight.

The first big decision City Council has to make is how City Hall will make decisions. The governance structure they develop will deeply impact all of us. Fair representation, accountability, and meaningful civic engagement could be chipped away if they don’t get it right.

There will be a Special Committee in charge of sorting out this mess, though many very important questions remain. For now, a temporary structure has been proposed, which would combine several committees and boards.

This restructuring (even if temporary) poses many challenges, but these are the ones that the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) is most concerned about:

Fair representation: The first is how to make sure all local residents (a Councillor’s constituents) get the help they need, as even experienced Councillors struggle to serve a ward twice the size. As others have already called for, this can be partly offset by expanding Councillors’ office budgets and staff complements (if approved by Council), but the reality is that our ward-based system requires the elected Councillor to be accountable for solutions to local issues at the end of each day, not their staff. And when time is short, often it’s the tough or complex cases - such as those experiencing chronic poverty, lack of affordable housing, or environmental health issues - that get turned back to deal with the systems that have failed to help time after time.

Accountability: Governing these big service delivery systems and implementing City-wide strategies like the poverty reduction strategy and the TransformTO climate plan present the second main challenge the new Council must meet. Agencies and boards like the TTC, the Toronto Public Library, Toronto Community Housing Corporation, the Board of Health, and many more deliver essential public services to Torontonians and are funded by the City. They are governed by boards that include elected Councillors, and often also citizen appointees. Councillors sit on these boards for two key governance reasons: fiscal accountability to the City and public accountability for the service outcomes they deliver. With fewer Councillors overseeing these services, that accountability will be weakened.

With less Councillor oversight and weakened accountability, the quality and responsiveness of those systems and City-wide strategies will depend more on the leadership of senior bureaucrats and the watchfulness of political staff. Neither of these are sufficient to meet the city’s transit challenges, the affordable housing crisis, or our climate targets. For that we need vision and leadership from Councillors and the Mayor.

Civic engagement: Implementing City-wide strategies to reduce poverty, address racism, improve housing, reach our climate change targets, and support tenants, seniors, youth and newcomers require complex inter-departmental coordination and lots of public consultation and engagement. Strategies are often reviewed by multiple boards or agencies as well as various committees to get it right, keep it on track, maintain funding and ensure it’s having an impact on the people it’s designed to serve better. Advocates and supporters of these strategies rely on transparent reporting, staff responses to Councillor questions, vote tracking and other tools to make concerns known and engage in the decision making process.

Advocating for a Greener City for All

Environmental issues that would have been heard by the Parks and Environment Committee will now be merged into the new Infrastructure and Environment Committee. According to the City Manager’s report: “The Infrastructure and Environment Committee's primary focus is on infrastructure and the natural environment, with a mandate to monitor and make recommendations on Toronto's infrastructure needs and services, parks and forestry and the sustainable use of Toronto's environment.”

With far fewer committees for issues to be heard and much longer meeting agendas for major portfolios like the new Infrastructure and Environment Committee, it’s quite likely the public will have even less access to decision makers including time to meet with designated Councillors, speak before committees, or deliver presentations and petitions.

It’s more important than ever to have a strong contingent of environmental champions on City Council. With their commitment and the vocal support of Toronto residents, we can ensure that environmental issues are on the agenda.

TEA will be listening to the Mayor's inaugural speech on December 4th very closely. We want to hear that protecting Toronto's environment and leading on climate action are priorities and that the restructuring of City governance won’t further erode fair representation, accountability and civic engagement in decision making.

We know that solutions to the challenges ahead can’t be achieved by Council alone - they require the intervention and support of citizens, organizations, community groups and businesses across our city. Outside help will come in many forms including ideas, advice, input, information and - yes - sometimes pressure to do the right thing. Without the sustained support of vocal organizations like ours, many of the challenges facing this City would be much worse.  


Heather Marshall is the Campaigns Director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA)