Canada

Controversial bill reducing the size of Toronto council clears major hurdle

A controversial bill reducing the size of Toronto council has cleared a major hurdle.

Following a raucous all-night legislative session that began at 12:01 a.m. Monday, the Progressive Conservatives concluded the requisite six-and-a-half hours of second-reading debate of Bill 31, the Efficient Local Government Act.

Aimed at cutting council from 47 members to 25 after the Oct. 22 election, it is the reintroduction of Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act, struck down as unconstitutional a week ago by Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba.

The Tories will soon introduce a time-allocation motion and the bill could then pass second and third reading as well as receive royal assent by Thursday. The deadline for registering as a municipal candidate would be two days later.

For the first time in Ontario history, the government will invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to override Belobaba’s decision.

“By working overnight on behalf of the people, we are sending an important message,” the former one-term councillor, who lost to Mayor John Tory in the 2014 mayoral election, told the legislature around 6:15 a.m.

“We will do whatever it takes to get the job done. We will do whatever it takes to deliver better transit, to fix housing, to make sure we don’t have a housing crisis — and make sure that we take care of the crumbling infrastructure,” he said.

“We’re going to fix the political gridlock that has crippled city hall for decades.”

Ford could not say how much the overnight emergency session of the legislature cost taxpayers. Scores of Legislative Assembly employees were called in on overtime.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath castigated Ford for acting unilaterally, charging “these are the actions we would expect from a dictator.”

Members of the public gather on September 16, 2018 as Queen's Park holds a rare midnight session to begin the second reading of Bill 31, a reintroduction of Bill 5 that includes the notwithstanding clause.
Members of the public gather on September 16, 2018 as Queen's Park holds a rare midnight session to begin the second reading of Bill 31, a reintroduction of Bill 5 that includes the notwithstanding clause.   ( Steve Russell / Toronto Star )

“It’s absolutely shameful, the abuse of office. How petty is that,” said Horwath, deriding the “bully premier.”

“We’re all embarrassed by what you people are doing,” she chided Tory MPPs during an emotion-charged debate.

Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said his bill is necessary because Toronto council is “broken.”

“City council took 15 hours to pass its budget. Toronto voters deserve a leaner and more efficient city council. They shouldn’t have to wait,” said Clark.

Throughout the night, protesters demonstrated loudly outside the legislature.

“Let us in! Let us in! Let us in!” they chanted when refused entry to the building.

“Whose House? Our House! Whose House? Our House! Whose House? Our House!” the protesters continued as they banged construction hoardings like drums.

“Notwithstanding, we’re here standing!”

The cacophony could be heard in the chamber all night, including when Attorney General Caroline Mulroney was telling MPPs that Toronto city council is “dysfunctional.”

“Decision-making at city council is far from efficient,” she said at 1 a.m.

From the public galleries a man shouted “this is our government” before being escorted out. Speaker Ted Arnott was forced to recess the House for 10 minutes and clear the galleries.

Mulroney could win a stay of Belobaba’s ruling Tuesday at the Court of Appeal.

That would would negate the need for the notwithstanding clause because Bill 5, which passed a month ago, could take effect. In that scenario, Bill 31 would be unnecessary.

Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter said the Tories were “trivializing” the importance of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — especially when they never told voters what they were planning.

“This isn’t right. This is unjust and unfair. There was no mention of this during the campaign,” said Hunter (Scarborough-Guildwood).

In the pre-dawn hours Monday, the Conservatives had some welcome news from the Speaker.

Arnott rejected a formal NDP complaint that Bill 31 was out of order because it is virtually identical to Bill 5, which is against the rules because duplicate legislation cannot be tabled in the same session.

He ruled that because Bill 31 includes the notwithstanding clause, it is significantly different from Bill 5.

The urgency at Queen’s Park stems from Ford’s decision to change the ward boundaries in the middle of an election that began May 1.

At city hall, clerk Ulli Watkiss has been warning a fair Oct. 22 municipal vote is “becoming virtually impossible to carry out.”

Members of the public gather as Queen's Park holds a rare midnight session to begin the second reading of Bill 31.
Members of the public gather as Queen's Park holds a rare midnight session to begin the second reading of Bill 31.   ( Steve Russell/Toronto Star )

Watkiss, who has taken the unusual step of retaining her own outside legal counsel, said in court filings Friday that printers would need to work 14 hours a day for seven days to prepare the 2.6 million ballots.

“The current schedule does not provide any room for slippage for unanticipated issues or the correction of errors,” she said in her submission to court.

Ballots cannot yet be printed because it remains uncertain whether there will be 47 council wards or 25.

Green Leader Mike Schreiner accused the Tories of “playing political games” with the midnight sitting.

“I would gladly work emergency hours if the legislature was being recalled to address serious problems that affect everyone in Ontario, such as hallway medicine, the mental health and addictions crisis, housing affordability, transit and the largest one-month job loss in a decade,” said Schreiner.

“The premier is responsible for this mess and he needs to explain why he is wasting so much time and money on his personal vendetta against Toronto, instead of serving the people of Ontario,” he said.

Government House Leader Todd Smith expressed optimism that MPPs can still break Tuesday for the International Plowing Match rural expo in Chatham-Kent.

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