Kingston City Council has taken a public stance against the new “strong mayor powers” which were recently granted to the Mayor of Kingston. During a meeting on Tuesday, Jun. 20, 2023, councillors approved a new motion expressing “strong opposition to the Ford Government’s expansion of the Strong Mayor Powers to the City of Kingston.” The move came after the provincial government announced last week that 26 new municipalities — including Kingston — would be granted the powers, which were first introduced in 2022.
The strong mayor powers allow the holder of the Office of the Mayor to directly appoint the City’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), while also allowing them to hire and dismiss certain City staff, including department heads. Where Council business is concerned, the powers give the mayor the ability to introduce their own budgets, which require support from two-thirds of councillors. Under the new powers, the mayor will also be able to veto certain bylaws that “interfere with provincial priorities.” The initiative was first introduced by the Ford government as an attempt to support the province’s goal to build 1.5 million new homes in Ontario by 2031.
On Tuesday night, councillors debated a motion introduced by Kingscourt-Rideau District Councillor Brandon Tozzo, which noted that “considerable concerns” have been raised regarding the new powers, such as their “undemocratic” nature. The motion suggested the new powers entrench “minority rule, as the mayor is given the power to bring forward a budget and get it passed with two-thirds of council support.” The new motion also took issue with the Mayor’s new powers regarding the hiring of City staff, including the CAO.
During Tuesday’s meeting, members of Council had the opportunity to address the motion, with many using the time to reiterate their opposition to the new powers. “Consensus building is a challenge, but in the end, it makes government better… [Mayor Paterson] has assured us that he will continue to govern as he always has, by building consensus. I believe him, but, who comes next? We all hold office and are stewards of the public trust, one day we will be gone and our torch of office will be handed to another,” noted Councillor Tozzo.
While Tozzo’s motion repeatedly mentioned Mayor Bryan Paterson’s commitment to “consensus” building, the councillor raised concerns over what might happen in the future when others are on the job. “Not all those who seek political power have integrity and use those powers with discretion… If all elected officials were angels, there would be no need for checks and balances in government. Institutions should be designed to emphasize good people but protect against those with insidious motives. These powers being provided to the Office of Mayor provide few checks other than the [mayor’s] conscience and values, and that to me is not enough,” Tozzo remarked.
Many councillors then spoke in favour of the new motion, including King’s Town District representative Gregory Ridge, who commented on the impact strong mayor powers will have on the effectiveness of municipal governments. “I’ve noticed… the erosion of the ability of municipal governments to effectively manage, govern, and represent their constitutions, in a number of ways. I feel that the strong mayor powers are a further, very apparent, erosion of the ability of district councillors… in that governance,” he said.
Trillium District Councillor Jimmy Hassan echoed Ridge’s sentiments as he suggested strong mayor powers present a threat to local democracies. “I think that our local democracy is in danger, it will be in danger if we continue with this initiative. The majority of voices will not be heard [under the strong mayor powers], and it will be easy to get manipulated by interest groups,” noted the Councillor, as he spoke in favour of the motion.
Considering the fact that strong mayor powers were introduced as a means for cities to accelerate housing development, Williamsville District Councillor Vincent Cinanni noted the City of Kingston is already on its way to meeting housing targets set out by the province. “I feel like Kingston really didn’t need this, we’re on target for building and all that,” he said. According to the motion, Kingston City Council has already committed to issuing 4,800 residential permits, including 480 “affordable and supportive housing solutions,” it read.
While the councillors who spoke to the motion on Tuesday night all expressed their opposition to the strong mayor powers, Mayor Bryan Paterson did not share the same sentiments as his colleagues. “I’m not going to rule anything out. I’m certainly not looking to wield the new powers and tools in different ways. I have no intention of changing my style of leadership, which I believe is effective and working with an effective team around the Council table,” he said.
Despite the fact that Paterson has already stated publicly that the new powers will not alter his approach to governance, the Mayor was vocally opposed to Tozzo’s motion on Tuesday night, primarily due to the fact the decision to grant the City of Kingston strong mayor powers has already been made. “In this particular case, that decision has already been made. I think there’s lots of other issues where… the province has not arrived at something and we could have our voices heard,” Paterson remarked.
The Mayor then pushed back against assertions that strong mayor powers are undemocratic. “The strong mayor system has been in place in many US cities for decades. So, I don’t think it [fair] to say it’s undemocratic, it’s just a very different system that, quite frankly, has different strengths and weaknesses. We prefer the system we have. That is fine. I just feel that it’s over the top to say it’s anti-democratic. It is different,” Paterson said.
Ultimately, the motion passed by a vote of 11-1, with Mayor Paterson the lone vote against. It should be noted that Sydenham District Councillor Conny Glenn was absent from Tuesday’s meeting, meaning just 12 total votes were cast. With Kingston City Council approving the motion, a letter outlining Council’s opposition to the strong mayor powers will now be sent to the offices of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
Members of the public can view the full agenda from the meeting on the City of Kingston’s City Council meetings webpage, and the meeting can be viewed in full on the Kingston City Council YouTube channel.