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Let Mel Brooks save us from Strong Mayor Powers

This week's Market Squared will consider how the wise words of a Hollywood legend can save us the headache of new legislation
20201026 Guelph Council Chambers 05
Guelph city council chambers. Richard Vivian/GuelphToday

It’s fitting on this Canada Day week that we would get a lesson in democratic action at city council. It’s a pity though that it had to be about something as regressive and silly sounding as “strong mayor powers.”

It was about two weeks ago that the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing announced that the powers bestowed on the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa last fall were being extended to all but three of Ontario's biggest municipalities. It wasn’t a surprise, but like a lot of things that the Ontario government does, the timing of the announcement on the last day of the spring session, a Friday, was dodgy as heck.

Now, I’m not here to debate the merits or demerits of the strong mayor powers. As housing policy it’s stupid, as a matter of red tape reduction it’s listless, and as a method to promote better governance it completely misunderstands how government is supposed to work.

No, the strong mayor powers are just bad, and Councillor Phil Allt made a good point about why at Tuesday’s council meeting. “The President the United States does not have the power to make the law. It’s bizarre. And this is something we've taken from an American principle of law, something that says that we, as a council, must overturn something that a ‘Strong Mayor’ has done.”

Now let me tell you why everybody was wrong on Tuesday.

First, the delegates came out with a head full of steam to talk about all the things they hate about the strong mayor powers: It’s illiberalism, the roughshod way it was brought up and the fact that it will almost certainly not result in a swift end to the housing crisis. But the Procedural Bylaw demands that a delegation stick to the matter at hand, and in this case, it was the procedural bylaw.

Alternatively, delegates might have waited for a September meeting where all the impacts of strong mayor powers will be discussed and then they wouldn’t have had to hold their fire or edit their speeches to fit a more specific mould mid-delegation. I also think there was some eagerness to start a fight with the mayor when there’s not yet something to fight about.

To Mayor Guthrie I will say that he could have stopped all of Tuesday’s incoming fire before it even began.

I know it’s not easy to sit there and take it as over a dozen people assume the worst in you, even when they say they don’t. Guthrie was also a victim of circumstance being on that stage at Queen’s Park as the past Chair of the Ontario Big City Mayors because he had to take over for former-Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman when he stepped away to run for provincial office last year.

To paraphrase a line from Kevin Smith’s Clerks: He wasn’t supposed to be there that day.

Having said that, Guthrie’s quote in the provincial press release, and the nearly four days of silence that followed it had people convinced that it was tacit endorsement, or that he secretly wanted the powers. It was weird for our very online mayor to be very quiet about any aspect of his job, and it doesn’t take much to rouse the suspicions of people when it comes to their political leaders these days.

And speaking of suspicions about political leaders, it’s really a wonder that people delegating at Tuesday’s meeting think that this council could tell the provincial government to take a hike on the housing pledge, and that will be that. Has Premier Doug Ford ever struck you has someone to take rejection lightly or understand concepts like complexity and nuance?

Now, were strong mayor powers a “reward” to cities that enacted a housing pledge? It doesn’t seem like it.

Aside from Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, who perplexingly sees strong mayor powers as “advanced accountability”, most mayors have reluctantly accepted them if not outright rejected them, probably because it’s the legislative equivalent of the genie in the lamp; it has the power to change anything, but unless you’re precise with your language, you’re courting disaster.

And speaking of courting disaster, we’re really going to depend on the City of Guelph website to hold up the transparency and oversight of the strong mayor powers? I publish a website and a newsletter that are both based, in part, on the idea that the City of Guelph’s website is unusable for human beings.

I believe in the power of tech to change things for the better, but I’m not sure a webpage meets even a minimum standard of accountability that the people delegating Tuesday night were looking for.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t take strong mayor powers seriously. Of course we should. It’s an unprecedented recalculation of the power dynamic inside city councils in Ontario.

Also, city staff are rolling with the punches. What struck me Tuesday was when staff explained that they were working off the regulations given to Ottawa to implement strong mayor powers because the one’s for Guelph weren’t received yet. Four days out from D-Day and the Ontario government was still working on it and they were hopefully going to get back to us before the start of the long weekend? Cool.

A lot of the so-called housing solutions from the province have been half-baked like this.

On second thought, maybe we should renege on the housing pledge! It’s still uncertain as to what the punishment might be if we don’t build 18,000 new homes by 2031, and it’s just as hazy as wildfire smoke whether we’ll be compensated for lost revenue, or where we’ll get the planning department staffers to implement all the new plans.

I was reminded this week about an old interview with the filmmaker Mel Brooks. Always one to walk right up to the line, if not cross it, Brooks was continuously confronted with studio notes in his career to make him change a scene, or change a joke, or change an actor, and he developed a very simple system to weather these creative disagreements.

“Simply say yes,” Brooks explained about making one of his most famous films in 2021. “Like Joseph E. Levine, on The Producers, said, 'The curly-haired guy – he's funny looking. Fire him.' He wanted me to fire Gene Wilder. And I said, 'Yes, he's gone. I'm firing him.' I never did. But he forgot."

Maybe we need to take the Brooks approach. Just say “yes” and maybe they’ll forget about it.

Happy Canada Day!


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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