Does Toronto even need a mayor?

Ivor Tossell on the case for giving Canada's largest city a ceremonial head of state

It’s mayor-picking time in Toronto, a season the locals can’t seem to get enough of. Even under non-calamitous circumstances, Toronto’s mayoral campaigns last a whole 10 months, from winter to fall. Now, Torontonians are being treated to a special bonus round of mayor-picking, after their last choice ran into trouble with conflict-of-interest law.

This go-around comes with extra excitement, since it’s still possible that the new mayor could be appointed rather than elected. Technically, council can appoint anyone. They could appoint Rob Ford. They could appoint Rob Ford’s mom. They could try to appoint you. This might be a good time to make that trip to the exact opposite side of the planet you’ve been putting off, just in case.

This week, Ford won a stay of the judgment removing him from office, allowing him to stay mayor until his appeal is heard in early January. This wasn’t unexpected. From here, one of three things could happen: If he wins his appeal (and I’ll spare you the amateur odds-making on this front), he stays mayor. If he loses, council has 60 days in which to either appoint a successor or call a by-election. For now, we wait.

There’s quite a bit of conversation about what kind of mayor the next mayor should be. Should it be a centrist, who, as the Globe’s Marcus Gee suggests, could help stabilize Toronto’s oscillation between doctrinaire left-wingers and off-kilter right-wingers? Downtowner or a suburbanite? Insider or outsider?

And then there’s the unmayor crowd: those who argue, rhetorically or not, that Toronto doesn’t need a mayor at all. As Adam Vaughan, Ford’s downtown nemesis, acidly pointed out this week, the city’s been working without a functional mayor for more than a year.

There’s truth to this. In his mayoral honeymoon, Ford handily won every vote that came to council. But by the fall of 2011, his support fell away amid a flurry of ill-advised initiatives and personal misadventures. Since then, Ford has had neither the political touch to build alliances, nor even the organization to corral his allies’ support. The city has floated on from one fiasco to the next, with its assembly of 44 councillors figuring things out amongst themselves.

For all that, Ford’s incapacity has not proven to be an entirely bad thing. Progressives have seen his worst excesses curbed, his budget cuts tempered, his definition of “waste” brought more in line with most citizens’ view. (Libraries: Not needless waste.) Conservatives still have a council that broadly leans in their direction, and one that’s still willing to put the vice on spending. Ford was still able to impose an aggressive, strike-free settlement on city unions, who may well have recognized that if Ford was willing to let his hidebound intransigence take himself off a cliff, he’d take them, too.

The city is now on the brink of having a more productive conversation about funding transit than it’s had in years: The left and right are both talking about going directly to the taxpayers to fund the expansion that everyone agrees the city needs. The mayor’s attempts to ram through a nonsensical plan—and his subsequent firing of the TTC boss who wouldn’t back it—had a bracing effect. When Ford’s bull-headed partisanship went from difficult to disconcerting, working together gained a certain cachet. If a new mayor is elected who—unlike Ford—actually wields partisanship effectively, a return to the dreary status quo is inevitable.

In Toronto, there’s not a lot of set rules about the mayor’s job description. The law says that the mayor is supposed to lead council, but doesn’t specify how. The law also says that the mayor is supposed to act as the city’s “Chief Executive Officer,” which is an odd title, since it comes with no formal power other than a mandate to further the city’s interests and act as an all-around civic booster—essentially, to act as a ceremonial head of state.

All this being the case, why not just re-appoint Ford? There’s an argument for it, as Thomas Walkom pointed out in the Star. The problem with Ford is that, even as an inert quantity in the mayor’s office, he makes a lousy head of state. He is not stately. One never knows exactly what state he’s in. This is a bad combination for someone who’s in the representation game. It’s hard to argue that Ford is a net positive for the city’s image of itself, or for its stature on the national or world stage.

If turning the city council into a mayorless, Occupy-style collective would prove too much of a stretch (“Mic check!” “Mic check!” “I’ll kick you in the nuts and the face at the same time!”) then why not appoint a mayor on the understanding that his or her job is to serve as a ceremonial leader while the city gets its act together. What’s Adrienne Clarkson doing these days? She knows this turf. She could attend ribbon-cuttings and proclamations. She could lead missions of cultural exchange to the far north, or Barrie. She could do anything she likes, really, as long as it fits in the mayor’s budget and she keeps her nose out of transit policy. Or appoint an athlete, or a poet, or Drake or Don Cherry or some minor member of the royal family. Toronto’s grand experiment in leaderless government is just starting to bear fruit. Why stop now?

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