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Concern over Strong Mayor powers prompts local watchdog to start petition

Blair Smith believes strongly in community engagement, citizen’s democracy
Once a strong supporter of Mayor Marianne Meed Ward, Blair Smith has changed his opinion.

Blair Smith is a keen observer of city council and has delegated to council on a number of issues. Community engagement and citizen’s democracy are a constant topic of discussion for him. 

However, Smith has become disillusioned with the erosion of citizen engagement, the lack of respect for delegations to council, and skewed ‘public surveys’ that seem to be designed to illicit preferred responses and limited options.

“Delegations could and should be extremely powerful if, in fact, the city would listen,” said Smith. “The exercises coming out of city hall for the last six years have been largely empty.”

Despite all that, Smith still believes in the power of the people enough to have started a petition on the website (petition) to ‘respectfully request’ Mayor Marianne Meed Ward heed a motion recently put forward by three councillors, and supported by a fourth, to have the mayor delegate some of the responsibilities afforded her by provincial Bills 3 and 39, ie. ‘Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act’ back to council. 

Smith’s petition,  “Restoration of Democracy at Burlington City Council” states, “Under the act, strong mayors have the ability to, among other things, veto certain bylaws, prepare budgets, appoint a chief administrative officer (CAO), and hire or fire most department and division heads. It's notable these powers were only awarded to mayors of municipalities who pledged to help the government meet its target of building 1.5 million homes by 2031."

As of late Friday, the petition had 320 signatures, with a first-goal of 500.

Forty-six municipal councils in Ontario voted on and agreed to accept the strong mayor powers in 2023. Four cities outright refused to accept the strong mayor powers.

It’s acknowledged that only some of the strong mayor powers can be delegated to council members. And even if some powers are delegated, that decision can be reversed by the mayor later. 

Whenever a strong mayor uses the new powers, the municipality must publish the decision on its website, as Burlington has done.

Smith’s petition also lists what other municipalities are doing in response to the new strong mayor powers. Of note, 31 of 46 are not using powers other than passing bylaws and/or advancing budget processes and council decisions. Burlington is not one of them.

Smith mentioned that some on council are claiming that, now that the strong mayor powers have been in effect for eight months, they have not heard complaints from the public. 

“Well that’s not true,” said Smith. 

He noted that in addition to delegations going back some time, people have sent in written comments, and, at the special meeting of council on March 26, there were four in-person delegations and 11 written submissions that were presented all supporting the motion. 

After much debate, the motion memo ‘Improving Local Democracy by Strengthening City Decision-Making (ADM-05-24)’ along with several amendments including sending a copy to the Ontario premier was unanimously approved by council, including the mayor.

And yet, Meed Ward stated that she would make her decision on whether to transfer the strong mayor powers only by the next council meeting on April 16.

“The whole concept of one person being able to override the majority of (collective) will is antithetical to the democratic principles that have been the foundation of this country,” explained Smith as justification for the petition and the message he hopes it will send to the mayor and the province.

“The point of the petition is to say, you can’t ignore this, you cannot say that people are not concerned,” stated Smith. “If we can get 500, or more, signatures on this petition, in only three weeks, I think that’s deserving of some form of recognition.

“The petition is to say to the councillors that put this motion forward, ‘we support you and we appreciate the fact that you are doing the right thing for the citizens of Burlington’.”

Meed Ward, who wrote a column that appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, to voice her feelings about the issue, has said she will continue to be accountable to the people who elected her.

This was her tweet regarding the issue:

"Council still advances the business of the city, together, by motion and majority vote. That hasn’t changed. You will see that at every committee and council meeting. Our democratic process remains strong — this year to date, council has unanimously approved 61 motions at our meetings.

Each mayor has responded to the legislation based on their determination of what’s best for their community.

Mayors remain accountable to our communities for the decisions we make — so do council members — not just every four years at the ballot box, but every single day we hold these roles. Our community will judge how we work together to fulfil our responsibilities in this new context."

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Lawson Hunter

About the Author: Lawson Hunter

Lawson Hunter has been a freelance writer for more than 30 years. His articles on technology, the environment, and business have been published in local and national newspapers, magazines and trade publications
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