Toronto Mayor John Tory out – Much uncertainty ahead

John Tory’s looming resignation creates an immediate power vacuum at Toronto City Council.

The City was already facing substantial challenges to funding its Operating and Capital Budgets, concerns growing from residents about the degradation of services, issues with violence and mental health in the public realm, and continued concern about the interference of the province on municipal governance. Having no strong hand steering the proverbial ship will lead to a period of uncertainty and a slower decision making on Council until a new Mayor is elected.

As recently amended through the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, 2022 (Bill 3), the City of Toronto Act stipulates that once the Mayor or “Head of Council” resigns, the seat must be declared vacant, and a by-law adopted within 60 days outlining the timelines for a by-election.

There is already substantial interest from City Councillors to see the void filled and have the strategic and policy direction for Council reset.

Resignation comes at pivotal time

Council is working toward the approval of the first Operating and Capital Budget that is entirely proposed and adopted by the Mayor though changes made through Bill 3. Councillors and staff will now have to determine how to proceed should the Mayor’s formal resignation occur before the budget is introduced and passed.

Once the budget for 2023 is dealt with, expect all Council office efforts to be put toward supporting the upcoming by-election. In a short election period without an incumbent, name recognition will be integral and we can expect some big names to seek the Office of the Mayor, potentially from the ranks of the provincial, or federal caucuses.

The substantial changes proposed by the Mayor’s 2023 Housing Action Plan will still be popular enough to pass Council, policy issues like the Gardiner Expressway, SmartTrack expansion, and approaches to financial sustainability may all have doubt cast upon them as targets for the Mayoral candidates, and will potentially be used as examples of how the new Mayor would transform the City of Toronto.

Expect Council and staff to pause major policy announcements until a new Mayor is elected and sets the tone for the new administration.

What to expect immediately

Bill 3’s changes to the City of Toronto Act stipulate that once a member of City Council resigns, Council must declare their seat vacant at their next meeting and a by-election be held.

In the case of the Mayor, once the seat is vacant, the Deputy Mayor (in this case, Jennifer McKelvie) assumes their role as the interim ‘Head of Council’ and Mayor until a by-election can be held.

City Council meets on February 15, but since this is a special meeting to deal with the Operating and Capital Budget, Council may be unable to add the resignation of a member to the agenda.

Council may opt for an additional Special Meeting of City Council to quickly deal with the resignation and declare the seat vacant. However, this does not mean we will know the details of a by-election immediately.

After declaring the seat vacant, Council will have 60 days to adopt a by-law outlining the details of the by-election. This will include the date at which nominations will start being accepted, last day for nominations to be filed, expense limits, and the by-election date.

Bill 3 does not say how quickly the by-election must be held, but there will be an interest from most Councillors to see the Mayor’s seat filled quickly. Until the by-law (which is largely determined by City-staff, led by the Clerk) is proposed and passed by Council, we cannot know for certain how long this process will take.

Importantly, sitting Councillors are not required to resign to run for Mayor. This will change the political calculus for many, where losing an election does not mean a loss of their seat on Council, as would be the case in a normal election.

Should a sitting Councillor win the upcoming by-election, their seat would be declared vacant, and an additional by-election would be called to fill that vacancy.

Sitting MPPs and MPs would both be required to resign their positions if they seek a position at a different level of government.

Impacts to the current City of Toronto legislative agenda

The next Mayor of Toronto will set the legislative agenda. But first City Council needs to pass its proposed Operating Budget for 2023.

Before the introduction of Bill 3 by the province (providing Strong Mayor powers), Tory’s resignation would have only meant that there is one less vote on Council decisions.

However, Bill 3 put the power for proposing and passing the budget into the hands of the elected Head of Council. While there is some debate at this time, it does not appear that those powers shift to the Deputy Mayor as they are not an elected Head of Council.

The City of Toronto Clerk and Legal team will need to determine how to proceed with the passing of the budget should the position of Mayor be vacated before the vote on the budget.

Undoubtedly, there will be political manoeuvring by many on Council to take power away from any one individual setting the budget and reverting the process to a full vote of Council as has historically been the case.

One option is Tory may be able to still pass the budget for 2023 before his resignation is made official. This will likely be heavily challenged at City Council where the changes proposed and implemented by Bill 3 were already unpopular among Councillors.

With respect to the other key policy platforms proposed by Tory, it is safe to assume that the next Mayor will be the one to set the tone and direction of Council. However, we can still expect some key policy pieces to be maintained given the current political climate, including continued actions toward reforming the City’s planning and permit processes to support more housing.

A murky few months coming up for City Council and Staff

The Mayor had been facing recent criticisms for his handling of violence on the TTC, services being reduced on the TTC while increasing fares, providing a budget bump to the Toronto Police, and declining to open more warming centres for people experiencing homelessness and/or looking for a place to get out of the cold. All of these will likely become key election issues as they remain top of mind for Toronto residents.

Less clear is whether approved projects carrying a substantial price tag will continue to see Council support, such as the Gardiner Expressway maintenance and SmartTrack stations.

The City of Toronto had also started down a path toward determining their long-term fiscal plan. The new Mayor will play a substantial role in shaping the framework for the staff and stakeholders working on this monumental roadmap to financial security for Toronto.

Getting ready for a short and intense election

When City Council determines a by-election date, the Clerk will open registration to residents looking to run for the Office. It is likely that the campaign period will be much shorter than the usual cycle which permits registration and campaigning for 6 months from May to October of an election year.

A short campaign period, even one that will receive significant media coverage, will still be one where the candidate will not be able to get their message out to voters easily.

The candidate must also be able to demonstrate the ability to fundraise substantial amounts of money, and quickly. Resources will need to be poured into getting their name into people’s homes.

With no clear front-runner in a short campaign, this will lead to an election where name recognition will be tantamount to success, in an environment where having a recognizable name already conveyed significant advantages.

In addition, with Council members able to run without giving up their council seats we can expect one or more of them to throw their hat into the ring in this safer race.

These factors may result in a highly fractured field.

An unpredictable field of candidates

John Tory was a consensus candidate in his 2018 and 2022 elections, winning substantial majority support across the City.

In a fractured field, without a consensus candidate, the final victor may emerge with a much lower share of the vote – perhaps not even clearing the 50 percent threshold. This would see them gain “Strong Mayor” powers without an equally strong electoral win.

The left, right, and centre factions on Council will all be looking to put their best candidate forward in an attempt to not crowd the field.

We are hearing from many previous Councillors, candidates, and their election teams that they are testing the waters and considering a run. Expect the more media savvy and well-known candidates taking advantage of this early pre-campaign period to introduce or re-introduce themselves to voters.

Council’s left faction

The Council’s left faction will see the first clean opportunity to regain the Office of the Mayor, now with enhanced powers, since the 2010 election that introduced most Torontonians to the Ford family. It will need to evaluate whether it can stand up a compelling enough candidate that can maintain the support of the Left-leaning voters while appealing to enough progressives, and thus discourage a centrist challenger that would compete for the votes it needs. Several of the highest profile left-wing Councillors chose not to run against Tory or Council at all in 2022, and may decide to make a comeback.

Council’s right faction

The right faction on council has lost its most effective mayor since the City was amalgamated in 1998, able to advance a centre-right agenda with little opposition and a mostly supportive province both under the Wynne Liberal Government and now the Ford Progressive Conservative Government – the latter reducing council size and substantially enhancing the mayor’s legislative authority.

They face the same challenge as the Council’s left, that is: picking someone that can appeal to enough moderate voters as to discourage a moderate-right, or even progressive candidate, competing for their votes.

Council’s centrist block

Council’s growing centrist block remain a bit of a wild card. Many were either aligned with Mayor Tory, or recently elected with no voting record to indicate a clear alignment yet. This is where most of the chatter is about existing Councillors who may take the plunge. This will be tempting for many but a failed bid for the Mayor’s chair would have lasting consequences to their Council relationships and their political longevity.

No matter what, Toronto is in for an unprecedented election

This election will be like none other in Toronto’s history.

An empty seat. A mayor with as yet untested powers that were not part of the conversation mere months ago. Sitting councillors safe to run without losing their seat. Former councillors rethinking retirement. Recently unsuccessful candidates with residual name recognition.

This may be shaping into Toronto’s most competitive and consequential Mayoral race since amalgamation in 1998. And it couldn’t have come at a more critical moment.

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