How to make city mayors "responsible"
If Toronto Mayor Rob Ford were a premier, he would be out of office.
Why would he be out of office? Because at the provincial and federal levels of government in Canada, we have what is called “responsible government.” If the elected leader of a “responsible” government loses the confidence of the elected assembly, the leader and administration are subjected to a vote of non-confidence. If the vote carries, the leader and the administration are out, and either an election is held or other members of the assembly form a new administration if they can gain the confidence of enough members.
At the municipal level, including the City of Toronto, no such system exists. Which raises the question, should “responsible government” or some closer semblance of it, be introduced, at least for big urban municipalities, some which are larger than our smaller provinces?
The distinguishing characteristics of responsible government include: (1) an elected executive with real executive (policy- and decision-making) powers and formed from among those members of the assembly who agree to work together to form an administration; (2) accountability of the executive to the elected assembly, such that its failure to maintain its confidence on major issues such as the budget obliges it to resign or reorganize; (3) an understanding or convention that upon the defeat of an administration, new elections will be held unless some other group of elected members can form an administration commanding the support of the assembly; (4) government by the executive and the assembly in accordance with the rule of law, preferably under a constitution that clearly defines the powers and responsibilities of the government.
At the Canadian municipal level, including Toronto, these characteristics only partially exist or do not exist at all. At the big-city level, much of the executive power effectively rests with an unelected bureaucracy only tenuously connected to the assembly through the office of the mayor. The concepts of “confidence” and “non-confidence” as accountability mechanisms are absent. The constitutions of municipal governments are primarily defined by the terms of provincial municipal government acts. But most of these acts are far less precise than, say, the British North America Act, in spelling out the legal responsibilities of the governments they create, and constrain their activities only by way of limitations on revenue sources and taxing powers.
In cities like Calgary, there is a major push under way to secure a “civic charter” from the province, which would provide a new and stronger legal framework for the city outside the Alberta Municipal Government Act and significantly expand its spending and taxing powers. Any move in this direction by the province, however, should be accompanied by a corresponding expansion of administrative transparency and democratic accountability for the exercise of such powers. One way to achieve this would be through adoption of a “responsible government” structure for the city.
“No increase in taxing powers without stronger democratic representation and accountability” – i.e., responsible government – was the principal condition on which increases in the spending and taxing powers of Canada’s earliest governments were first granted. The same condition should be insisted upon by the citizens of today’s cities if such city charters are to be granted.
It should be frankly acknowledged, or course, that responsible government as currently practised at the federal and provincial levels is no guarantee in itself of good government. Thus the introduction of responsible government at the municipal level should not be thought of as some sort of panacea for the various ills of municipalities. What is truly exciting, however, is the opportunity to redesign and improve the practice of responsible government through the development of 21st-century city charters.
Lastly, it is inspiring to remember that many of the fundamental principles of government and democracy were first invented and perfected by the leaders and citizens of ancient Athens – not a vast empire, not a federation, but a city. Why could not our cities then – with all the intellectual, technological, economic, cultural, spiritual, and human resources available to them – be the innovators and incubators of new and better ways of governance today, just as Athens was centuries ago?
This column was published by the Globe and Mail on July 21, 2014