What Chicago’s parking meters are saying about Doug Ford’s plans to give Toronto a ‘strong mayor’


As Premier Doug Ford considers giving more power to the mayors of Ontario’s largest cities, he may want to keep the story of Chicago’s parking meters in mind.

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has yet to release details of its plan to implement “strong mayor” systems in Toronto and Ottawa. But in his few public comments on the matter, Ford listed Chicago as one of the U.S. municipalities he would like to emulate.

Many experts say the province’s argument that extending authority to big-city mayors could improve accountability and allow city leaders to more effectively carry out their mandate is valid.

Yet even as Toronto appears to be heading for a reshuffle that will give its mayor more influence in city hall, Chicago is pushing to do the opposite, with critics saying insufficient checks on the city’s top office have sometimes been disastrous for the third largest city in the United States. In this sense, the Chicago experience could serve as a warning to Ontario policymakers about what happens when mayors become too strong.

“The argument for a powerful executive is that you can do more. The downside is that it all comes down to one individual’s judgment,” said Joe Ferguson, who served as Chicago’s inspector general for 12 years, which is an independent watchdog of the city government. This year, he launched a nonprofit to overhaul the Illinois city governance structure, and limiting the influence of the mayor’s office is one of his priorities.

Ferguson cites the parking meter fiasco as a prime example of the need for reform.

In a deal that has since become infamous, in 2008 then-Mayor Richard M. Daley privatized parking meters in Chicago. The private investors agreed to pay $1.15 billion (US) to take over the parking system for 75 years, and despite the long-term implications of the deal, the council was only given a few days for the examine it before Daley drives it through City Hall.

Privatization proceeds enabled Daley to fill budget deficits without raising taxes for a few years. But a decade after the deal was signed, investors had raised parking prices and fully recouped their initial investment. They will spend the next 60 years reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, while the city is deprived of a valuable source of revenue for generations.

“That’s what an all-powerful mayor can do without the proper mechanisms (to control them),” Ferguson said.

It is far from clear that the Ontario government’s reforms will result in Chicago-style governance at Toronto City Hall. Some observers are also quick to point out that the mayor of Chicago owes much of his authority to political convention rather than to authorities authorized by law.

But Ford said he plans to give the mayor of Toronto a veto over council decisions, which could only be overridden by a two-thirds majority. This would mirror the Chicago system and be a change from the current regime under which the mayor of Toronto has only one vote on the 26-member council and must muster majority support for any initiative.

One American-style change that the Ontario government seems unlikely to emulate is to allow political parties at the municipal level. It could be a good thing. Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the worst abuses in the Windy City occurred when a united Democratic party dominated the council and other local government offices, leaving no effective opposition to the mayor.

“The office became too powerful because it combined the party and the mayor’s office, and mayors who stayed in office long became tyrannical,” Simpson said. But he thinks that when sufficient controls are in place, “generally the strong mayor system of government is good”.

Gabriel Eidelman, director of the Urban Policy Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, believes Toronto could benefit from expanding the powers of the mayor.

But he argues that the council veto the Prime Minister has launched would not be the most effective change. Eidelman notes that in his eight years in office, Mayor John Tory has rarely lost a significant council vote, so a veto would likely not lead to different results.

Instead of having more sway over council decisions, Eidelman argues that the mayor should have greater executive control over the civil service. Under the current system, City of Toronto staff are responsible for presenting the annual budget and other policy recommendations to council for approval. In Chicago and other cities, the mayor has the authority to submit a spending plan and propose other initiatives independent of staff.

Eidelman said Toronto’s staff-driven system is “backward” and out of step with provincial and federal governments in which premiers and premiers use annual budgets to set their priorities.

Although Toronto’s mayor already has informal influence over the city’s budget, Eidelman argued that giving the mayor explicit authority to write the spending plan each year “(would) add an element of accountability” by making it more clear to the public who is responsible for the city budget financial decisions.

Eidelman also believes that any strong mayoral system should give the mayor of Toronto discretion to appoint heads of city departments, which he says would make it easier for an administration to implement his agenda. Currently, the board approves appointments of senior officials.

“If a ‘stronger’ mayor means strengthening the executive powers of the mayor…then that’s a useful reform,” Eidelman said.

Others argue that unless the Ontario government is prepared to give Toronto more power, expanding the mayor’s authority will only make whoever holds the office a bigger fish in a pond that is too small.

Kate Graham, a political scientist who teaches at Western University, said Toronto’s biggest challenges stem from the province’s gradual transfer of responsibility for social services, housing, transit and other important functions to the municipality without providing new sources of income to match. .

In June, Toronto council echoed that argument when it voted not to oppose the province’s strong mayor proposal, but reiterated its demand that the government be given greater autonomy to generate revenues.

Successive Ontario governments have rejected calls to give Toronto more taxing powers and Canada’s largest city remains largely dependent on the property tax base. Some US cities have a wider range of options, including municipal sales tax in Chicago and income tax in New York.

“We don’t have weak mayors, we have weak cities,” Graham said. “If the province wants to improve the ability of municipalities to solve problems, that’s where they should focus their energy.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto reporter who covers city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Contact him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr


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