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Ontario passes law boosting 'strong mayor' powers in Toronto, Ottawa

Toronto and Ottawa can now enact bylaws with the support of a minority of councillors and the provincial government can appoint certain regional chairs, with the passage Thursday of a "strong mayor" law that caps off a whirlwind of widely criticized
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Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory, shuffle during a joint press conference inside Queen’s Park in Toronto, Monday, June 27, 2022. Ontario has passed legislation that allows Toronto and Ottawa to enact certain bylaws even if a minority of councillors are in favour, capping off a whirlwind of widely criticized housing-related moves from the government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Toronto and Ottawa can now enact bylaws with the support of a minority of councillors and the provincial government can appoint certain regional chairs, with the passage Thursday of a "strong mayor" law that caps off a whirlwind of widely criticized housing-related moves.

In the last few months the Progressive Conservative government has passed two pieces of legislation giving powers to the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa that critics have called antidemocratic, while also passing a law that cuts fees developers pay and municipalities use to fund infrastructure for new homes.

Environmentalists also say the latter law weakens the role of conservation authorities and they have criticized the government for proposing to remove land from 15 different areas of the protected Greenbelt so that 50,000 homes can be built, while adding acres elsewhere.

The government says the laws and regulatory changes are all in service of its goal of building 1.5 million homes in 10 years. It's a target that has been falling further from reach, with high inflation and interest rates driving projections for new housing starts to levels far short of the 150,000 new homes needed annually.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark was not made available to answer reporters' questions after the passage of his latest legislation, but he did release a promotional-style video for it Thursday on Twitter.

"Ontario is in a housing supply crisis and the situation is serious," he said over footage of home construction and stirring music.

"Some of our proposals have been controversial, but we knew from the start that real change would not be easy and that those who benefit from the status quo would stand in our way."

The latest bill allows the province to appoint the regional chairs in Niagara, Peel and York, and boosts so-called strong mayor powers that the government gave to Toronto and Ottawa earlier this year.

The first set of those powers allowed the leaders to veto council decisions deemed to hamper the creation of new homes, prepare and table the city's budget, as well as hire and fire department heads. The new powers allow them to propose housing-related bylaws and pass them with the support of one-third of councillors.

However, while Toronto Mayor John Tory has said he will use the powers in a limited and responsible way, Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe has said he is not interested in using them.

Sutcliffe said Wednesday after a council meeting that he has spoken to Clark several times over the last few weeks and no one has applied pressure on him to use the powers. Premier Doug Ford has previously said he is "disappointed" in Sutcliffe's position.

Opposition critics have said the legislation is antidemocratic. 

"With the passage of Bill 39, today will be remembered as the day the majority party in the Ontario legislature voted for minority rule," Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner wrote in a statement.

The government has also drawn the ire of critics over plans to remove 7,400 acres from 15 different areas of the protected Greenbelt, while adding 9,400 acres elsewhere. 

Advocates question not only the environmental impacts and necessity of building on the Greenbelt – the government's own task force said a shortage of land isn't the cause of the housing crisis – but also the government's motivations. 

Some prominent developers who are Progressive Conservative donors bought Greenbelt land in the past few years despite Ford and Clark's past public pronouncements it wouldn't be developed, with one purchase happening as recently as September, investigations by the CBC, The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the Narwhal have found.

Both Ford and Clark have denied giving developers advance notice of the Greenbelt plans.

Another recent piece of legislation has angered municipalities because it cuts fees developers pay, which communities use to build infrastructure for new homes, and has upset environmentalists who say it weakens the role of conservation authorities.

Clark has promised to launch a third-party audit of municipal finances in so-far undecided "select" communities, focused on reserve funds and the fees housing developers pay. If the municipalities do indeed have a shortfall in funds needed to support infrastructure for new homes, the province will make them "whole," Clark said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2022.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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