Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

It's time to admit it: Toronto’s municipal government is broken

By: Metro Published on Mon Nov 10 2014

Yeah, sure, John Tory was elected mayor, but that wasn’t all that happened on election night in Toronto. A quick list of some other notable things:

  • Of the 38 members of Toronto city council who sought re-election, only one was defeated. Just one!
  • Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti, who had his pay suspended earlier this year after the city’s integrity commissioner found he had breached fundraising rules, was re-elected handily. A possible conclusion? Break all the rules. No one cares!
  • In Ward 12, veteran councillor Frank Di Giorgio was elected with just 29 per cent of the vote, meaning more than two-thirds of voters didn’t support him. But he keeps his job anyway.

I look at stuff like this and just one word comes to mind: broken.

Toronto’s municipal government is broken.

Even though they hold a tremendous amount of power, city councillors are not generally held accountable at election time for how they used that power. They’re able to wield vote-splitting like a sword and incumbency like a shield. It’s a potent combination that can make sitting councillors virtually unstoppable, even when facing qualified challengers.

This makes for an unacceptable status quo. It encourages complacency and dampens ambition. Councillors have little incentive to take on challenges because they know they’re almost guaranteed their job for as long as they want it.

Ranked ballots, which allow voters to rank their preferred candidates, will help. I hope beyond hope that this is the last election we see conducted under the archaic first-past-the-post-system.

The problem with council races ultimately comes down to a lack of information. Voters don’t know enough about their local representatives or the people running against them to make a qualified choice.

Journalists can try to provide information, but covering 44 other elections in addition to the mayor’s race is easier said than done.

So these races often come down to name recognition, which gives incumbents a huge advantage, even with ranked ballots.

There are a bunch of possible solutions.

Term limits feel like a simplistic response to a nuanced problem, but they probably would make for a better council. Political parties at the municipal level would at least allow voters to associate council candidates with a brand they’re familiar with. And reducing the size of the city-wide council — while still retaining community councils to deal with neighbourhood issues — could make some council races more high profile.

I’m not yet convinced any of these are the right solution to Toronto’s governance challenge, but I am convinced that a solution is what we need. Once he takes office, Tory should lead the new council to the same conclusion. The first step is admitting we have a problem.

This post was originally published at on 2014-11-10T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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