Incoming Toronto mayor has large mandate, opportunity for new directions after Tory

TORONTO — The surprise resignation of Toronto Mayor John Tory has put the city’s future in flux while presenting an opportunity to move matters of pressing public interest in a new direction, political observers said Saturday as they processed the abrupt departure.

The mayor who presided over two relatively scandal-free terms at City Hall and had recently been elected for a third lobbed a political bombshell on Friday when he announced he’d be stepping down after having an affair with a former member of his office staff. The Toronto Star first broke news of the relationship that Tory later characterized as a “serious error in judgment.”

His resignation comes days before the city budget was due to be presented and lands amid mounting public concern about homelessness, crime and the municipal transit system.

Matti Siemiatycki, a professor at the University of Toronto’s geography and planning department, said those factors — combined with a recently enacted piece of provincial legislation — highlight the importance of the office Tory is vacating.

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He said the Act enshrining “strong mayor powers” gives the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa the ability to enact certain bylaws even if a minority of councillors are not in favour, among other measures.

“With him now gone, there is a real vacuum and uncertainty,” Siemiatycki said in an interview.

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Tory is leaving his post amid heightened criticism about the state of Toronto under his leadership. His opponents in the October 2022 municipal election noted the high cost of housing, aging infrastructure, overflowing garbage bins and shuttered parks as they tried to mount a credible challenge to his leadership. They did not succeed — Tory garnered 64 per cent of the vote in that contest, with runner-up Gil Penelosa securing just 18 per cent.

Tory also faced criticism for his handling of Toronto’s housing crisis. The city’s shelter capacity is stretched to its limits amid increasing strain, and the provincial Progressive Conservative government cited the need to build more homes as part of the rationale behind the new Strong Mayor powers.

Those rules enable the mayor of Toronto to veto bylaws, prepare budgets and appoint chief administrative officers even when encountering opposition.

Siemiatycki noted Tory had a hand in negotiating the powers, which will now outlast his time in office.

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Tory’s third term brought with it a change in council dynamics with a number of new faces and perspectives, Siemiatycki said.

“The mayor, especially with the strong mayor powers, played a big role in setting the direction on the significant files,” he said.

“Now with the mayor gone, there is flux and some of these decisions that he was kind of holding in place become reopened. With this new council, there could be some new directions.”

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Susannah Bunce, associate professor at the University of Toronto’s human geography department, said she hopes the incoming mayor will leverage the strong mayor powers to provide affordable housing and expand social services.

The pressing issues facing Toronto, she said, include a cost of living crisis, lack of affordable housing and the growing number of unhoused people.

Just this week, Toronto city council scrapped a recommendation to keep its warming centres open around the clock until mid-April after a bout of extreme cold, as well as to declare a public health crisis over lack of shelter space. With support from Tory, council voted instead to call for more federal support and have staff study the idea further.

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Bunce said there’s currently a lack of public investment in social service infrastructure, leaving community organizations to try and do more with less while cutting staff and services.

She argued Tory’s replacement, who has yet to be named even on an interim basis, should focus on addressing the growing disparity between wealthy Torontonians and those struggling to make ends meat.

“The new mayor needs to have longer term visions, so beyond just what to do in terms of enticing development, but actually addressing the issue of and the need for equitable development,” she said.

Longtime street nurse Cathy Crowe said she hopes Tory’s resignation will shift the power dynamics at city council and allow its members to think independently of him.

“Everyone feels very much that it was the mayor himself that was controlling decision making at city council,” she said.

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Councillors are set to debate Tory’s proposed 2023 budget at a Wednesday meeting, the first under the new strong mayor powers.

Crowe said she expects “it’ll be chaos” and she’d like to see a number of items in the proposed budget reconsidered, like a $800,000 raise for the mayor’s office and $3-million for private security to patrol city parks.

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She also noted Tory’s push to increase the city’s police budget by $48.3-million, which would bring police funding to just over $1.1-billion for 2023 — a figure she said dominates the budget while social services go underfunded.

“I’m hoping the budget can be thrown up in the air like a deck of cards and come down in a different formation,” she said.

In a Saturday statement on Tory’s resignation, Coun. Dianne Saxe said his affair “will cost Toronto taxpayers millions for a byelection during already precarious financial times.”

“These unfortunate developments will make advocating for the city that much harder in light of recent provincial legislation surrounding mayoral powers,” she said.

But Ontario Premier Doug Ford praised his time in office and thanked him for his years of public service.

“John will be remembered as a dedicated and hard-working mayor who served as a steady leader during the most difficult days of the pandemic,” Ford said in a statement Saturday morning.

Tory has said he’s working with senior city staff and Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie to ensure a smooth transition, but remains mayor and has not formally named his interim successor.

Provincial legislation states a byelection will need to take place within 60 days of the mayor’s office officially becoming vacant to name a permanent replacement. Penelosa has confirmed he will run again when that byelection is called.

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— With files from Hina Alam in Fredericton

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