City council can ensure 25-ward system isn’t a ‘threat to democracy,’ new report says

Now that Toronto has elected a 25-ward council, questions are being raised about how city hall will function with a drastic drop in elected officials — but a roadmap released by two urban planners and a community advocate is proposing ways to navigate this uncharted territory.

Their recommendations include combining city council committees, reducing the number of councillors sitting on outside boards, and ensuring there’s no change in overall councillor staffing levels despite the ward reduction imposed on Toronto by Premier Doug Ford during this year’s election.

Titled “The New Reality: An Approach to Governing Toronto in a 25-Councillor World,” the discussion paper being publicly released on Wednesday — and provided exclusively to CBC Toronto — aims to ensure councillors can handle their increased workload while staying accessible to residents.

“The big challenge in going to 25 councillors is that you will lose your voice at council,” said co-author and community advocate Sue Dexter.

“You will lose your access to your councillor. You will not be heard at committees, or your councillor will be too busy to pay attention.”

Those concerns prompted Dexter, who challenged Ford’s cuts in court, and longtime planners Gary Davidson and Beate Bowron to explore ways to mitigate the demands imposed on councillors in a system where each ward now has an average of 110,000 residents.

Both Davidson and Bowron were principal consultants in the city’s last ward boundary review, which ultimately settled on a 47-ward system to account for population growth — one that was scrapped by the province’s council-cuts legislation, which was eventually passed despite a series of court challenges before the October election.

Combine committees, reduce number of councillors on boards

The trio behind the paper recommends merging similar city council committees to drop the total number from 12 to four, which their paper argues could create some scheduling efficiencies for councillors.

Toronto should also reduce the number of councillors sitting on as many boards as possible — outside posts ranging from the TTC to the Toronto Zoo — and replace them with citizens, the group argues.

“We need to embed the citizenry in the apparatus of government,” Dexter said.

Glenn De Baeremaeker, an outgoing long-time councillor who chose not to run this year following Ford’s cuts, also expects it will be necessary for the boards to have fewer councillors, given the impending workload.

“It is physically impossible for councillors to work 80 hours a week,” he said, adding those duties could clog their schedules to the point that responding to resident concerns over neighbourhood issues would take a backseat.

Another key recommendation in the paper? Maintaining the existing allotment for staff so that service to residents doesn’t change with fewer elected officials.

That’s one potential way to ensure councillors don’t get bogged down in a “crushing workload,” said Mitchell Kosny, interim director of the school of urban and regional planning at Ryerson University.

De Baeremaeker took it one step further: “I think they will have to hire more staff,” he said. “There’s no way city councillors today can take on twice as much work, twice as many people, with the same number of staff they have.”

‘It’s a potential threat to democracy’

Kosny said there’s merit to another idea in the paper as well: a call for sub-committees called Community Council Advisory Boards for each of Toronto’s four community councils, Etobicoke York, North York, Scarborough, and Toronto & East York.

The authors say the boards could be made up of diverse residents and stakeholder groups, not councillors, and could make recommendations to each council.

“If we want a city that engages the public, asks the public to be engaged, you’ve got to provide some structural way for that to happen,” Kosny echoed.

Some note that while the shift to a 25-ward system comes with challenges, it could bring benefits as well.

De Baeremaeker said efficiencies wouldn’t be financial, but could come from streamlined council meetings thanks to fewer speakers. The paper also recommends reducing the meetings to two days, and convening them twice a month.

While it was a “draconian” process, according to Kosny, “there was an appetite to look at the way the city was organized.”

But Dexter stressed the negative impact of Ford’s mid-election cuts could be long-lasting if council doesn’t take action.

“It’s a potential threat to democracy,” she said. “And that’s what we’ve tried to address.”

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