TORONTO — Doug Ford's surprise decision to dramatically cut the size of Toronto's city council just months before the fall municipal election drew immediate backlash Friday from the city's mayor and other critics, who accused Ontario's new premier of circumventing the democratic process.
Ford said his Progressive Conservative government will introduce legislation to cut the number of council seats from 47 to 25, aligning city wards with federal ridings — a plan that wasn't outlined during the spring election campaign or mentioned in the province's throne speech earlier this month.
The premier, a failed Toronto mayoral candidate and single-term city councillor, said he has wanted to make the change since his days at city hall.
"I promised to reduce the size and cost of government and end their culture of waste and mismanagement in government," he said. "This is something I fought for at city hall, something I continue to believe in today."
Having fewer city councillors "will dramatically improve the decision-making process," and save Toronto taxpayers $25 million in councillor and staff salaries over four years, Ford said.
Asked why he didn't campaign on the plan or hold public consultations on it, Ford said he heard from thousands of people while canvassing that they want a smaller government.
"People don't care about politicians, they care about getting things done," he said.
The deadline for candidates to register for Toronto's election was Friday afternoon but the province said it will extend that to September. The deadline to run for mayor, however, was unchanged.
Ford's move was panned by Toronto Mayor John Tory, who said the process around the plan is "absolutely not right." The mayor said he'd propose a referendum on the issue.
"This is a gigantic decision about the future of Toronto," Tory said. "What we don't need and what I just can't support is change being rammed down our throats without a single second of public consultation."
When asked if he had been given advance notice of Ford's plan, Tory said the premier made a "passing reference" to the idea in a meeting two weeks ago but the matter was dropped.
"I didn't think it was anything that was going to be taken seriously," Tory said. "I said, 'Well I don't even think that was anything that was even possible.'"
The issue came to a head during a testy exchange at city hall Friday night, when the mayor confronted Coun. Mike Layton, accusing him of "implying" that Tory had advanced knowledge of the move.
"Get up, if you have the balls to do it, and say it!" Tory said.
Several councillors joined Tory in opposing Ford's plan.
Calling the premier's move "an affront to our democracy," Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam urged Tory to challenge it in court.
Coun. John Campbell said slashing council nearly in half would reduce oversight of municipal boards and commissions.
"If you reduce councillors to 25, all of a sudden you lose that connection with the electorate and in the end the public is the loser," he said.
Others, however, expressed support for a smaller municipal government, arguing it would cut costs and help council reach decisions faster.
"The only thing we do upstairs in that chamber is everybody gets up and just wants to talk," said Coun. Jim Karygiannis. "When you have 25 people there's more cohesion, you'll move faster on things."
Toronto city staff said the province's plan would make preparing for the fall election very difficult, and would likely lead to the shortening of some electoral processes.
Ford also said he will cancel planned elections for regional chair positions in the York, Peel, Niagara and Muskoka regions.
Former Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown, whose resignation this winter paved the way for Ford to take over the party, was registered to run for the Peel seat, but made a last-minute switch Friday to join the mayoral race in Brampton, Ont.
Former Liberal cabinet minister Steven Del Duca is a candidate for York regional chair.
Ontario's New Democrats accused Ford of ruling by edict "as though he were a dictator" and suggested he was meddling in municipal politics for personal reasons.
"He is taking vengeance on his former political opponents, he's behaving in a very mean-spirited way and his bullying approach to politics is odious," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
She also noted that a proposal similar to Ford's was recently rejected by Toronto city council, which instead decided to increase the number of seats to 47 from 44.
Horwath said her caucus, which holds 40 seats, would use every tool in its arsenal to oppose Ford's legislation, but acknowledged there was ultimately little it could do.
Ontario's Liberal caucus also slammed the plan.
"This is a highly undemocratic proposal," it said. "The Ford government is unilaterally ramming through a last-minute, massive change to Ontario's electoral map."
The federal government, meanwhile, said it would do whatever it can to protect the residents of Canada's most populous city from the actions taken by the Ford government. Adam Vaughan, a Toronto Liberal MP and parliamentary secretary for urban affairs, said Toronto is too important for the federal government to stand idly by.
One analyst said Ontario is entitled to implement its plan since Canada's constitution enshrines the province's right to make changes to municipal affairs.
But lawyer Alexandra Flynn also noted that the City of Toronto Act recognizes the local government as a democratic institution that must be consulted when major decisions are made. The act also enshrines the city's right to make decisions about ward boundaries. If a court challenge was mounted, however, an injunction would be needed to stop Ford's plan from applying, she said.
Another observer said Ford's move will create havoc within Toronto's municipal government.
"It throws everything into disarray," said Mitchell Kosny, associate director of Ryerson University's school of urban and regional planning. "This will now be the singular focus."
Kosny said the decision has parallels to former premier Mike Harris' forced amalgamation two decades ago that created the City of Toronto as it's now constituted.
"That didn't come from any research, any study, it wasn't on any political platform. I think the only study that was ever done on it was post-decision," he said.
And while Ford believes people support his move, Kosny pointed to opposition to amalgamation as evidence that may not be the case.
"I actually think this does resonate with people," he said. "I'm not sure everyone understands what it will mean. But when you take things away from people it always rises ire."
— with files from Alanna Rizza.
Shawn Jeffords and Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press