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Transit woes reveal the limits of mayoral power

In theory, the mayor of Toronto has plenty of power. He is elected citywide and he is elected directly by the voters. That should give him a broad mandate to implement his program.

In practice, he is only one voice among 45 on city council. In the words of Denise Bellamy, the judge who wrote a 2005 report into the Toronto computer-leasing scandal, "Council is the source/primary locus of almost all authority with relatively few exceptions, including all legislative authority." By contrast, "The statutory authority of the mayor ... is actually quite limited."

Mayor Rob Ford is now confronting this reality. He is mayor of all the city, but he is not all powerful. In a municipal system with no political parties, he can't simply command his ruling party to vote his program into law. To get his way, he has to go back into the arena again and again, and win each time.

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That means employing all his powers of persuasion. A mayor is not the city's commander; he is its Persuader in Chief. Yet so far Mr. Ford has displayed few of these powers.

Consider the pickle he is in over transit. On his first day in office, Dec. 1, 2010, he killed the Transit City plan, ending a multibillion-dollar project, years in the making, that had been negotiated and funded and was even at the preliminary stages of construction. He never took that decision to city council. Four months later, he struck a deal with the provincial government to start a whole new transit project, again without council's approval.

That is now coming back to bite him. Councillors are challenging his authority and threatening to hold a vote in March overturning the new deal with Queen's Park. They even have a legal opinion, which draws on Judge Bellamy's report, that purports to show how far he strayed beyond his authority.

They make a convincing case. Toronto's failure to expand its rapid-transit system is one of the biggest issues facing the city. Determining how best to use the $8-billion dedicated by Queen's Park for transit expansion is arguably the most important decision in the four years of Mr. Ford's mayoral term.

Of course council must have a say. The memorandum of understanding between city and province makes it clear that any final deal to proceed with a new transit plan is "subject to the approval of their respective governing bodies." If councillors don't get to vote on this issue, which will affect the transportation future of the city for decades to come, then what is the purpose of city council?

Mr. Ford could get out of this fix in two ways. One, he could accept the sensible proposal put forward by TTC chair Karen Stintz to modify the current transit plan and bring part of the proposed all-underground Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown line onto the surface, saving something like $1.5-billion or $2-billion and putting some of the money toward his favourite project, a Sheppard subway extension. Two, he could try to make a convincing argument that keeping it all underground is worth the enormous cost because it would result in a superior transit solution.

Instead, he simply says, "I did what the taxpayers want. They want subways." Or, "I was in Scarborough over the weekend. People came up to me and said they want subways. That's it." Or, "It's all subways. It's all about subways." That was the extent of the argument he put forward when he met the media on Monday.

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Of course people prefer subways. The question is whether it makes sense to use all of the money offered by the province on a buried light-rail line that goes underground where it doesn't need to. To paraphrase Desi Arnaz, Mr. Ford has some persuading to do.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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