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‘Affront to democracy’: Strong mayor powers abandon principle of majority rule

Town of Oakville
Town of Oakville

As of July 1, Mayor Rob Burton will have the right to overrule town council if he thinks it will speed up the pace of building new houses in the town.

It's a power he has already said he doesn't want, but the province is giving it to him anyway.

Burton, along with the mayors of 25 other Ontario municipalities, was granted enhanced powers by the province on Friday, June 16.

Those powers allow him to veto majority council decisions that he thinks conflict with provincial priorities, such as increasing housing supply or building infrastructure.

The new rules will allow him to pass or repeal bylaws, provided he can get support from one-third of town councillors.

He will also be able to propose and adopt the town budget; hire, direct and dismiss senior staff; create and reorganize municipal departments; create committees and appoint committee chairs.

Mayors of Toronto and Ottawa were given these powers in October 2022, but several local councillors are dismayed to see them arrive in Oakville.

The new rules would allow five of Oakville's 15 council members to decide on a budget or land use plan for the town, notes Ward 3 councillor Janet Haslett-Theall.

"These are some of the most crucial decisions we make – they deserve our best work," she said. "They need the impact of all of council. And they should be based on the foundational principle of majority rule."

"Frankly, the mayor wasn't elected by the people of Oakville to have powers to veto us as elected representatives," she added.

At a meeting on January 30, Burton joined town council in a unanimous vote to oppose the provincial legislation providing for strong mayor powers.

At that time, he spoke of the value of collaborative action in getting important things done.

Burton has not responded to our requests for an interview about his new strong mayor powers.

What's wrong with a little bit of nimbyism?

"I'm hoping that (at council) tomorrow night, the mayor stands up and says he has no interest in using these powers," said Ward 4 councillor Allan Elgar. "Any time that five members of council can control the other ten members of council, we have a problem."

Ward 1 councillor Sean O'Meara, who introduced the January motion opposing strong mayor powers, is also concerned about the slippery slope of consolidating power in the mayor's chair.

"It doesn't lead to better democracies that way and never has through history," said O'Meara. "We've always had a tradition in Halton and in Oakville of getting to consensus and building coalitions on what our priorities are and how to execute on them."

"If the province wants to have administrators run municipalities, they should just go ahead and do that," he added. "It seems like they are trying to keep up the facade of a democracy while they just want people who want to do what (the province) wants them to do."

The new powers are "an affront to democracy" that take away the rights of the community to have their representatives stand up for their values and expectations, said Ward 5 councillor Jeff Knoll.

"From a practical local perspective, one of the stated principles is to avoid nimbyism and to avoid local councillors from holding up housing developments because of local interests," he said.

"Well, isn't that what democracy is about? What's wrong with a little bit of nimbyism? Why shouldn't somebody have a say in their community?"

"We went to great lengths as a municipality to designate growth areas, so why wouldn't local councillors have the right to continue to stand up against inappropriate changes?"

But given Burton's previously stated opposition to strong mayor powers, it is possible that the change will have little impact on how politics is done in Oakville.

"Our history has been to have a pretty collegial method of trying to make things happen, so I would be surprised if there was really a dramatic change in the way council actually functions," said Ward 6 councillor Tom Adams.

Political approvals don't get shovels in the ground

Steve Clark, Ontario's minister of municipal affairs and housing, said the new powers are tools to help municipalities achieve their housing targets as the province aims to build 1.5 million new homes by 2031.

"Municipalities are critical partners for our government as we help communities get shovels in the ground faster and work to build more homes," he said.

But councillors are skeptical that the powers will have any impact on Oakville's housing supply.

With the town on track to meet provincially mandated housing targets, strong mayor power isn't necessary, said Haslett-Theall.

"We're doing our part to increase housing supply," she said. "The data and the facts demonstrate that."

Knoll added that the politicians aren't slowing down growth. Rather, the supply of infrastructure like roads, schools, and water and sewer supplies are governing the speed of development.

Instead of "turning municipal governments on their ear," he believes the province should seek new models of public housing and public-private partnerships that will add to the supply of affordable housing.

And even after municipal approvals and permits are granted, there are questions about whether the development industry has the labour force or market conditions to meet the province's goals for new housing.

O'Meara said he recently spoke to a developer who said the real challenge is finding tradespeople to work on projects.

"I don't think it's a question of, 'If only the town would just say yes to these things, they would fix this problem in about a year.' I mean, that's just not the reality and anyone who says so has got other alternative motives here because that's not how it works."

Free training for skilled workers

Ward 6 councillor Tom Adams agrees.

"Frankly, I think the province is creating a bit of distraction from their failures to get more housing built, and specifically more affordable housing."

He says the province would be better off investing in free training for construction workers, skilled trades and civil engineers to help the development industry gear up to meet the provincial goal of doubling its output.

He also doesn't believe the municipal approvals process is what is holding back homes from being built.

Adams says it may be necessary to create a 'use it or lose it' rule to financially penalize developers who don't act on approvals to build. A financial penalty could provide cash for governments to create more affordable housing.

According to a report issued earlier this year by the Regional Planning Commissioners of Ontario, there are currently more than one million potential homes already in the development approval pipeline.

The group, which represents the province's planning officials, suggested the key challenge is convincing builders to get shovels in the ground to turn that unbuilt housing inventory into homes.

Once a municipality has granted approvals, there is no specific time requirements for developers to begin to build.

"If the private sector is unable or unwilling to construct homes, then there has to be another way of doing it," said Adams.