Spoiler Alert: "Strong" mayors won't fix the housing crisis

Get ready for veto-fest, coming soon to Ontario's biggest cities.

This week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford shared plans to introduce 'strong mayor' powers in Toronto and Ottawa. 

It's been framed as a move to increase municipal efficiency, including building housing faster. So far the only details shared are the mayors could veto council decisions, and these new powers would be offset by a 2/3 veto power for council of mayoral decisions ... which might sound like a great idea, especially if you love non-stop council drama. 

But let's back up here. What are 'strong mayor' powers, anyway? 

The term comes from the United States, where 'strong mayor' and 'weak mayor' refer to specific governance arrangements used by local governments (for a helpful primer, check this out). These are variants of something called the mayor-council model, which technically speaking doesn't exist in Canada.

The 'strong mayor' is characterized by a concentration of executive power in the hands of the mayor: they hire and fire senior staff, they develop the budget, they control council agendas, they oversee municipal services and often external bodies like police or other boards, and lots more. If you want a flavour of what this looks like, check out the show Boss staring Kelsey Grammar as Chicago Mayor Tom Kane. The mayor quite literally is the boss. He doesn't attend council, but the meetings play in the background in his office until something fires him up and he storms in to exercise his dominance. Get your popcorn. 

Think of 'strong' and 'weak' as ends of a spectrum. There are lots of variations of how these arrangements exist in the US -- and, there is already variation in the powers that mayors hold in Canada, too (for municipal nerds keen for a longer read on this, here you go!). 

Here's the important point: changing a governance model will not in itself fix larger policy problems. Strong mayor cities in the US still struggle with the housing crisis (and council drama, BTW). Giving mayors more powers will not magically solve NIMBYism or address trades shortages or supply chain problems. 

Governance arrangements are like models of cars. Some are built for speed, others for size or durability. The more important variable is who gets in the car and the direction they choose to go. City councils, with 'strong' or 'weak' mayors, are much the same. The models all have pros and cons, and are built to do different things. 

Want to build more housing? Elect mayors (and councillors, and MPPs, and MPs) who are committed to this. 

Want to improve the function of municipal councils? Have councils look at their own governance model from time to time, including what powers their mayors should have. Should the mayor (and let's call it what it is: the mayor's office) prepare the budget or set council agendas? Should they have more oversight of internal or external bodies? Does a mayor and/or council veto make sense -- and if so, is it limited in the scope of when it applies, or should it be time limited? Should the mayor's office be more policy-powerful with resources (or more influence over city staff) on major policy files?

These are all questions worth asking, by municipal councils. No one model is perfect. That's why there are options.

Bottom line: choosing a governance model should be a local decision. Forcing governance changes (amid an election, no less) will not solve policy problems. In Ontario's case, it also introduces an unhelpful partisan dimension that will make governance changes a more contentious, rocky road to walk - including for mayors.