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Strong mayor? Don't care, say many small town mayors

Most mayors don't think they'll have trouble meeting the new provincially-imposed targets
Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark answers questions after an announcement in the Ontario Legislature, in Toronto, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

Premier Doug Ford went to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario annual conference with a basket of goodies. 

On Monday, Ford announced he'd bestow strong mayor powers on 21 smaller-town mayors by Oct. 15 if they agreed to meet housing targets set by the province and outline a strategy to get there.

Cities with strong mayor powers will also be eligible for extra cash from a new $1.2 billion "Building Faster Fund" if they're on track to meet the targets. 

Many mayors, however, aren't keen on using the powers. 

The mayors of Sault Ste. Marie, Sarnia, Halton Hills, Kawartha Lakes, Aurora, Bradford West Gwillimbury, and North Bay all told The Trillium they don't think the powers are necessary to meet the new housing targets and likely won't use them. 

"I don’t believe the city is standing in the way of housing developments in our community. City council has approved every rezoning request that has been presented to council so far this term and in the last two terms I’ve been part of as a councillor," said Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Matthew Shoemaker. 

The real impediments to building homes in his city are the high cost of materials, high-interest rates, and lower land value compared to southern Ontario, Shoemaker said, which "won't be resolved by the legislative change proposed by the province." 

Halton Hills Mayor Ann Lawlor also said she doesn't think the powers are needed. 

"I tend to be a person who leads by collaboration and kind of work through problems as the council team," she said. 

Housing is already a priority for the Kawartha Lakes council, said Mayor Doug Elmsie. 

"We were working towards those targets in any event, and while I don't think the strong mayor powers were necessary I think tying it to money is very exciting for us because we can always use infrastructure money, and we will need it going forward in order to accommodate these bulids," he said.  

"I think that we have a council that moves forward with development," said North Bay Mayor Peter Chirico. 

Thunder Bay Mayor Ken Boshcoff was an outlier. He thinks the powers are necessary. 

Getting the new powers signals "a sense of urgency" to act on the housing crisis, Boshcoff said.

Thunder Bay is also "on the cusp of a major economic boon" from mining and the city hasn't "moved quick enough in preparing us for the infrastructure" required to meet the targets. 

He hasn't seen much resistance to getting started on the necessary work, but he also sees the value in the powers to encourage the city to be "a little bit more expeditious in getting things moving along quicker," he said.  

Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas also said "there could be certain situations that arise in the future where strong mayor powers could be useful, especially when it comes to accelerating housing," but overall "I don't think it's a tool we necessarily need." 

Woodstock Mayor Jerry Acchione said he's "hesitant" on whether he'd use the powers because he's still not clear on what exactly they entail. 

"I'm just learning what strong mayor powers really are meant to be from the province and trying to understand how they can affect us as an already growing city," he said. 

"Our council right now has strongly supported the growth our city has needed and are regularly encouraging developers to maximize every piece we can and don't see that changing anytime soon," he added. 

Ford first introduced strong mayor powers — only to Toronto and Ottawa — after the June 2022 election.

In June 2023, the provincial government gave the powers to nearly 30 other municipalities with projected populations of at least 100,000 by 2031.

The latest expansion involves cities with a population of at least 50,000 by 2031. 

The new powers include the ability to set budgets, veto bylaws, and pass bylaws with just one-third of their council’s support — only if these bylaws deal with provincial priorities like getting more housing built. Mayors will also have the power to appoint senior civil servants.

In July 2023, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark sent a letter to the municipalities involved in the latest expansion asking them to set their own "locally appropriate" housing targets.

That was a big change from the bigger municipalities, which had targets imposed on them by the province. 

Allowing these municipalities to set their own targets, versus having them assigned, could've set the province up for some political trouble if the cities didn't set ambitious enough goals, said David Amborski, a professor of planning at Toronto Metropolitan University, in a July interview with The Trillium

"There may be some municipalities that don't want growth, and they'll try to keep their targets low. That's not going to be very helpful from a broader perspective, and that could be an issue," he said.  

The province changed its mind in the name of fairness, said Victoria Podbielski, spokesperson for Housing and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark. 

"To support the development of (the Building Faster Fund), the 21 municipalities that were previously invited to submit a housing pledge to the ministry have been assigned a specific housing target by the province," she said. 

"To ensure fairness, this target was developed using the same approach and methodology employed by the ministry for the 29 large and fast-growing municipalities that were initially assigned housing targets last November. This approach will ensure equitable access to funding under the Building Faster Fund." 

Some smaller municipalities already started setting targets after Clark sent the July letter. 

Aurora, Welland, Belleville, Sarnia and Peterborough all got started on that work, representatives told The Trillium in interviews and email statements in July. 

Even with the province doing an about-face, some mayors don't think they'll have a problem meeting the new targets. 

Woodstock's target is 5,500 homes by 2031, which is "in line with what we were anticipating and what we feel is reasonable for our community," Mayor Acchione said. 

Aurora's 8,000 home target set by the province is the same as what the town put forward earlier in the summer, Mayor Mrakas said. 

Chirico's new target is 1,000 homes, which is pretty close to what he would've given the province, said the North Bay mayor. 

Halton Hills new 9,500 home target lines up pretty well with its projected population growth numbers, Mayor Lawlor said. 

Other mayors might have a bit more trouble, they said. 

"It’s unclear to me how the province determined the 1,500 target," said the Soo's Shoemaker.

"I sit on the housing task force that is examining the issue. One of our goals has been to develop a realistic and achievable housing target, which we haven’t finalized yet, but will soon. It will be based on input from the development community and will be the result of an evidence-based and comprehensive process," he added.

Bradford West Gwillimbury originally had a 3,500 home target that's been upped to 6,500 by 2031. 

"We'll certainly have to look at our infrastructure," said Mayor James Leduc, but that work had already started and he's open to the new targets. 

Thunder Bay's new target is 2,200 homes, which "we may have a bit of a difficult time getting to," said Mayor Boshcoff. Based on existing and planned infrastructure, the city can support around 1,600 new homes, he said. 


Aidan Chamandy

About the Author: Aidan Chamandy

Aidan Chamandy specializes in energy and housing. He can usually be found looking for government documents on obscure websites and filing freedom-of-information requests. He hosts and produces podcasts. Reach him anytime at [email protected].
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