The Economy and Vote Choice in the 2014 Toronto Municipal Election

Written by: Michael McGregor. Originally posted at CMES

The direction of the economy is generally one of the best predictors of vote choice in Federal and Provincial elections.  Little is known, however, about the the impact of this variable at the municipal level.  Toronto Election Study (TES) data reveal that economic evaluations had a significant impact upon mayoral vote choice, but no effect upon ward races, in the 2014 Toronto Municipal election.  Such a finding is perhaps surprising given Toronto’s ‘weak mayor’ system and the limited capacity for Canadian municipalities to influence the economy. 

The Theory

Economic conditions are known to influence electoral outcomes, in that incumbents are more likely to win re-election when the economy is doing well.  The state of the economy is consistently one of the best predictors of vote choice, and the literature on economic voting at the national and provincial levels in Canada is both broad and deep.  However, few scholars have examined the relationship between perceptions of economic conditions and electoral choice at the municipal level.  Do voters hold incumbent mayors or councillors responsible for the direction of a city’s economy? 

The TES allows us to consider this question in the case of the 2014 Toronto election.  The survey included the following question:  Over the last year, has Toronto’s economy gotten better, gotten worse, or stayed about the same?  We can compare the responses to this question to respondents’ vote choice to determine if voters held incumbents responsible for the direction of the economy.

There is good reason to expect voters not to attributed responsibility for the economy to municipal politicians.  Municipal governments have far less independent authority than the Federal and Provincial governments. Comparatively speaking, the financial tools available to local government are severely limited, and their power is highly constrained by the provincial governments that create and ultimately control them.  Municipalities therefore have little, if any, ability to stimulate their own economy, and most certainly their influence is dwarfed by both the federal and provincial orders of government.

One might also reason that the structure of Toronto’s government should make it unlikely that voters will attribute responsibility for the economy to the mayor. Toronto’s mayor is institutionally weak when compared to many American cities and some Canadian ones (e.g. Vancouver, Montreal, and Winnipeg), and certainly compared to provincial premiers or the prime minister. While elected at large, the mayor counts as only one vote on City Council, and is constantly at the mercy of ever-fluid coalitions of ward councillors.  Although the mayor is the only elected official in the city that can claim to represent the city as whole, in practice City Council holds most of the authority in Toronto.

This ‘weak mayor’ system, coupled with the limited policy making capacity of municipalities, suggests that voters Toronto might be expected assign little responsibility for economic conditions to an incumbent mayor.  The situation is similar for individual councillors.  Each councillor has but one vote on a 45-member council (44 councillors plus the mayor, under the 2014 ward boundary scheme), and without political parties that might structure voting blocs, it is difficult to attribute responsibility for decisions without undertaking a full review of each vote cast. As a result, the institutional structure in Toronto may be undermining the impact of economic conditions on voting for incumbents (mayoral or council).

The Data

Before describing our findings, we should note that retrospective economic evaluations are theoretically only relevant if an incumbent candidate or party is present, and it is our position that Doug Ford (who replaced his ailing brother on the ballot on the date of the nomination deadline) can be viewed as a de factoincumbent.  Respondents were asked how similar they believed Doug’s policies were to those of Rob, 85.6% thought the brothers’ policies were ‘all’ or ‘mostly’ the same, 10.6% did not know, while only 3.8% were of the opinion that the platforms of the two brothers were either mostly or all different.  We omit those respondents who believed the policies of the brothers were either mostly or all different and those answered “don’t know” from our analysis of mayoral vote choice and assume that, for all remaining respondents, Doug can be considered the de facto incumbent.  At the ward level we have no such issue, as incumbents were present in 37 of 44 wards; we limit this part of our analysis to these wards only.

So what do TES data say?  Our analysis reveals, perhaps surprisingly, that economic voting was indeed a factor in the 2014 Toronto election, though only at the mayoral level.  At the ward level, we find no evidence that the economy had a significant effect upon incumbent support for incumbent councillors.  In the mayoral election, however, Doug Ford received a boost of 5 percentage points if voters believed the city’s economy had improved in the last year, as compared to those individuals who believed the economy had worsened.  Despite the good reasons to expect economic voting to not be present in the Toronto municipal election, therefore, perceptions of the direction of the economy did affect support for Doug Ford.

So what might account for this potentially surprising finding?  We can see two potential explanations.  First, Toronto’s non-partisan system may lead voters to search for alternative informational cues to simplify their vote decisions.  They may turn to the economy as a shortcut, despite the many reasons why economic considerations should not factor into municipal vote decisions.  Alternatively, it could be that political rhetoric is such that voters are led to make incorrect links between the economy and the government/mayor’s effect.  In other words, it may be the perception of a politician’s economic impact, rather than the objective truth, that matters for vote choice.  The side that does the best job of arguing its economic impact stands to benefit from an issue that should arguably not factor into mayoral election outcomes.  Indeed, Rob Ford claimed in the months leading up to the election that he “transformed Toronto into an economic powerhouse” (Gee, 2013).  Such specious claims are hardly beneficial for political accountability through realistic economic voting.

2018 Winnipeg Municipal Election Update

Written by: Aaron Moore

With only a few weeks left until the 2018 Winnipeg Municipal Election, it seems all but certain that incumbent Mayor Brian Bowman will be re-elected. With only one challenger of note, whose support is largely confined to right-wing suburban voters, and no left-wing challenger, the centre-right Mayor should easily coast to victory. By adopting a low-key campaign and refusing to engage his main rival, Jenny Motkulok, in a one-on-one debate, the mayor is steering away from any hot-button issues that could derail his re-election bid.

As a result of the mayor’s muted campaign and lack of any major challengers, Winnipeg voters appear to be tuning out of the election. Turnout this October could be well below the high of 50% in 2014, when a number of strong candidates, including the mayor, former MLA and MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, and current MP Robert Falcon Ouellette, ran in absence of an incumbent. The lack of any important defining issue so far in the campaign could also keep voters away from the polls.

So far, the one issue dominating the election has been the question of whether the city should open the intersection of Portage and Main to pedestrians. The Mayor made a pledge to open the intersection in his 2014 campaign, but was unable to realise his plan during his first term of office, leaving him open to attacks from Jenny Motkulok and his opponents on council, who argue that opening the intersection will increase gridlock in the downtown and cause safety issues. In a risky bid to limit this avenue of attack, the Mayor agreed to support a non-bidding referendum on this issue in the upcoming election. This will be the first referendum held in the city in over two decades, and may drive some ardent supports in favour of opening the intersection to the polls (where they face an uphill battle). However, a probe poll conducted at the end of August found that 76 percent of respondents were already “… tired of hearing about Portage & Main.” While Winnipeg’s news media have tried to made Portage and Main the defining issue of this election, it is clearly not a primary concern for many voters.

Despite the general malaise currently gripping the electorate in Winnipeg, the outcome of council elections could significantly shake-up city hall and negatively impact the Mayor. Winnipeg’s mayor appoints councillors to serve as chairs of standing committees and to serve on an Executive Policy Committee (EPC) that oversees the budget and determines the general policy direction of the city. The committee comprises the mayor and 6 councillors, or roughly 43 percent of the vote on the 15 seat council (plus the mayor). Over his first term in office, Bowman has relied heavily on members of the EPC, and two additional councillors (known as the EPC plus two), to push much of his agenda through council. This election could result in a significant shift on council, making it increasingly difficult for the Mayor to find reliable allies to support his agenda.

Three of Bowman’s closest allies through his first term in office are not seeking re-election this fall. And their replacements are not guaranteed to be supportive of the mayor. In total, 5 of 15 wards have no incumbent running. In addition, due to recent changes to the city’s ward boundaries, a close ally of the mayor, and the city’s current Finance Committee Chair, Scott Gillingham, is now facing-off against fellow incumbent Sean Dobson, a strong opponent of the mayor, in the newly created ward of St. James. While Brian Bowman should easily win reelection—barring any significant event occurring in the next few weeks, the outcome of the council race could affect his capacity to govern for the next four years.

Incumbency and the Importance of Campaigns

Written by: Michael McGregor. Originally posted on CMES

In many settings, incumbents have a significant, almost insurmountable advantage at election time. While there is a sizeable amount of research on the sources of incumbency advantage, little is known about how the presence of an incumbent affects voters during the campaign period.  2014 Toronto Election Study data reveal that when incumbent councillors contest a race, voters are less attentive to ward elections.  Additionally, voters in wards with incumbents tend to make their decisions much earlier, and their preferences remain relatively stable during the campaign period.  These findings suggest that the importance of campaigns depends heavily upon the presence of an incumbent.

The Theory

Incumbency has been long recognized as a major predictor of candidate success in US federal and state elections, though its effect is noticeably weaker in Canadian federal and provincial contests.  In both countries, however, the incumbency advantage tends to be particularly strong at the municipal level, to the extent that many studies have shown that incumbency is the strongest predictor of candidate success in local elections.  The results of council races in the 2014 Toronto Municipal election would seem to confirm this – voters returned 36 of the 37 incumbent councillors (97.3 percent) who sought re-election. 67.6 percent of victorious incumbents won with a majority of the vote, and their average vote share was 59.8 percent.

Incumbents have a significant edge in election campaigns—they have name recognition, track records to tout, prestige, and all of the trappings of office when setting out to court voters.  While there is a significant amount of research on the sources of incumbency advantage, little is known about how the presence of an incumbent affects voters.  Do voters in wards with an incumbent assume that the race is uncompetitive and simply tune out during a campaign?  In elections that many see as having low stakes and with limited availability of information, do voters simply choose the ‘devil that they know,’ saving themselves from the effort involved in paying attention during a campaign?  Does such a pattern lead to early vote decisions, and stable vote preference when an incumbent is present? 

The 2014 TES allows us to examine the effect of incumbency upon the importance of campaigns in two ways.  First, we compare voters in wards with an incumbent candidate to those without to test whether the presence of an incumbent leads to lower levels of attentiveness on the part of voters.  Second, we examine whether the presence of an incumbent influences the timing of vote decisions.  Early decisions indicate that the campaign had no influence on vote choice, and could also be taken as a sign of disengagement—all other things equal, voters who know long before an election for whom they will vote have less of a need to be attentive during the campaign than do undecided voters.  By considering how the presence of an incumbent affects campaign attentiveness and the timing of vote decisions, we address the effect of incumbency upon the importance of campaigns themselves.  

The Data

The first question we consider is whether the presence of an incumbent affects attentiveness. TES data do indeed reveal that voters are less attentive during the campaign period under such circumstances. Voters in wards without an incumbent reported an average attentiveness score of 6.2 (on a scale from 0 to 10). In wards with an incumbent the average attentiveness score was 5.8 (the difference is significant at p < 0.05). As a point of comparison, attention to the mayoral campaign, which is unlikely to be affected by a City Council incumbent, is not significantly different when an incumbent is present (average scores for this variable are 8.1 in wards without an incumbent and 8.0 with an incumbent). Assuming that incumbency influences attentiveness, rather than the reverse, these findings suggest that voters are more likely to tune out from council races if they live in a ward with an incumbent candidate.

We can also consider whether the presence of an incumbent leads to early vote decisions. More specifically, we are interested in determining whether there is evidence that, when there is no incumbent, voters wait to make their decisions until they have more campaign information. We do so by comparing voter preferences at the time of the TES pre-election interview (T1) to post-election vote recall (T2), and categorizing individuals as either early deciders (those who express the same preference in both survey waves), switchers (those who express different preferences in the two waves) and late deciders (those voters who express no preference in the pre-election survey). The results of this analysis are shown in the table below.

 

Wards without incumbent Wards with incumbent Difference
Stable preference from T1 to T2 (early decider) 46.3% 60.7% 14.4%
Change in preference from T1 to T2 (unstable) 13.9% 12.2% -1.7%
Undecided at T1 (late decider) 39.8% 27.1% -12.7%
N 231 1122

TES data reveal two findings of note. For starters, voters in incumbent wards are relatively likely to be early deciders. 60.7% of voters in these wards displayed a stable vote preference from T1 to T2, while the value is only 46.3% in wards without incumbents (this difference of 14.4 points is significant at p < 0.01).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, a sizable majority (64.4%) of early deciders in wards with incumbents voted their current councillor.  The second finding of note here is that voters in wards without incumbents are relatively likely to be late deciders. That is, nearly 4 in 10 voters in wards without an incumbent are undecided at T1, while this value is just 27% when an incumbent is present (this difference of 12.7 points is significant at p < 0.05).  The presence of an incumbent is therefore associated with early, stable vote decisions.

So what does all of this mean for the incumbency advantage?  In low information settings such as council races, voters in wards with an incumbent pay less attention during the campaign period, make earlier vote decisions, and tend to support the incumbent. Campaigns therefore seem to matter less in these scenarios, meaning that it is particularly difficult for challengers to attract the attention and support of voters necessary to unseat an incumbent.  Such a finding adds further evidence of the advantages that incumbency brings. 

We conclude here with a caveat. Given the recent and high-profile changes to Toronto’s ward system, the applicability of these findings to Toronto in 2018 is questionable. Still, there is no reason to expect that these patterns would not hold in other cities, where ward boundaries have not changed, including most of the cities included in the Canadian Municipal Election Study. Indeed, the CMES offers an invaluable opportunity to replicate the analysis above and to continue to improve our understanding of the power of incumbency in municipal elections.

The Region of Waterloo: Retirement of Long-time Regional Chair Brings Changes to Urban and Rural Relationships

Written by: Kate Daley 

For those of us who are keen observers of politics in Waterloo Region, the main and defining story of this year’s elections in Waterloo Region is at the upper-tier level.

Regional Chair Ken Seiling is retiring. He has held the post since the year I was born, when he became the Region’s third chair upon his appointment by regional council in 1985. Since 1997, when the chair position became elected, Seiling has been the only person who has ever won a region-wide office in our municipal elections.

A conscientious and experienced politician, Seiling has rarely had significant competition, which suits his approach to elections. Anecdotally, I have heard people say that they would have to convince Seiling to put up a lawn sign on their lawn. In the 2014 election, he fought off a more determined challenge from a heavily self-funded opponent running against the light rail transit project Seiling has long championed. With a somewhat more active campaign, Seiling secured the support of nearly two-thirds of voters, despite continued controversy over his signature accomplishment.

But with Seiling’s retirement finally upon us, we have to confront the reality of a 21st century Region without Ken Seiling. And the most overlooked aspect of this shift is the change it will mean for the politics of urban and rural relationships in Waterloo Region.

Before his appointment as chair so many decades ago, Seiling was mayor of Woolwich, the region’s most populous rural township.

Waterloo Region’s next chair will not have Seiling’s rural grounding. Karen Redman currently serves as a regional councillor representing Kitchener, after past service representing the area as a federal Liberal MP and party whip under Paul Martin. Jan D’Ailly is a former City of Waterloo councillor and mayoral candidate who lives in Waterloo. Jay Aissa owns a Waterloo-based fencing business, his only political experience running against Seiling in 2014. All three have their perspectives rooted in one of the existing urban municipalities.

Only Rob Deutschmann, recent one-term mayor of the Township of North Dumfries, has significant political or personal roots in any of Waterloo Region’s rural municipalities. But after growing up in the city of Waterloo and running a law firm in Downtown Kitchener for many years, even Deutchmann has much more urban positioning than Seiling.

Any of Seiling’s possible successors will bring a more urban view of Waterloo Region than Seiling did. This is significant for two main reasons.

First, Seiling’s particular brand of urban/rural perspective has significantly informed his most impressive policy accomplishment: the Region’s urban growth policies. Seiling spearheaded the creation of cutting-edge urban growth policies, upon which the provincial Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe and Greenbelt were significantly modeled.

The Region has committed to building up rather than out, with intensification focused along the Central Transit Corridor served by the Region’s new Light Rail Transit system. This investment, one third of which is being funded through local sources, was championed largely to focus growth in central areas. This is a key step in preserving a permanent Protected Countryside that protects vibrant farmland and the area’s crucial groundwater resources, and a Countryside Line that provides a medium-term growth boundary between urban development and the rural landscape.

While support for the Countryside Line is high among the Region’s current councillors and many candidates (as shown by responses to a recent candidate questionnaire), Seiling has been the approach’s most determined advocate.

Second, Seiling’s positioning outside of the three cities of Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo has put him in an ideal position to negotiate tensions between different members of “the regional family,” as some regional councillors have called it. There are longstanding tensions going back at least to regional amalgamation in 1973. Forces in Kitchener have long advocated for annexing other parts of the region or amalgamating the surrounding county into one government headquartered in Kitchener. Forces in Waterloo and elsewhere have at times resented Kitchener’s “manifest destiny” (as one 1960s observer scornfully described it). In perhaps the most clear example of this dynamic, in a 2010 plebiscite, Kitchener voters supported amalgamation talks with two-thirds support, while Waterloo voters opposed even talking about amalgamation by the same margin.

Forces in Cambridge, for their part, have often felt left out of a regional system many see as driven by “Kitchener-Waterloo,” as so many observers unhelpfully describe the area. Over the years, leaders in Cambridge have called for the elimination of the Region or succession from the upper-tier system. Along with complaints over the two-tier system, wounds from the forced amalgamation of three municipalities into the City of Cambridge in 1973 are still raw, with community members routinely identifying themselves as from Preston, Hespeler, or Galt.

While Seiling has certainly taken sides and stood for central government against secessionists and service board advocates in Cambridge, he has been able to maintain a certain distance from the sibling rivalries between the cities from his location in Woolwich Township

Significant struggles over regional reform, with possibilities ranging from a mega-city amalgamation to abolishing the Region, have arisen periodically and consistently, most recently in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Always painfully divisive, debates over the right arrangement of government, over who should govern whom and how, and over how the relationship between urban and rural should work have been a persistent and cyclical feature of politics in Waterloo Region, despite the relative success of its regional framework.

Lest one think that these urban rivalries are old news, the amalgamation debates have resurfaced yet again in recent weeks. With Premier Doug Ford’s proclamation this summer that he will “review” the regional governments after reducing the size of Toronto Council, long-time amalgamation advocates are once again using the threat of provincial interference to pursue their long-term goals. The future of Waterloo Region’s two-tier model is once again in question.

Regardless of who wins the chair’s race, the Region of Waterloo will not be the same. Seiling’s most persistent accomplishment has been the role he has played as a uniting voice, representing the upper-tier region with limited urban baggage. He has also been a strong advocate for Waterloo Region as a whole with the provincial government, in particular. With the uncertainty of what a Doug Ford government might do to Waterloo Region under the dubious guise of making it more “efficient,” and without a particular commitment from the premier to local consultation and appropriateness, the Region will be without its strongest voice during this new and frightening era in Ontario municipal politics.

Even without this dramatic change at the province, Ken Seiling’s retirement would be a considerable loss for this area. The Region of Waterloo as we know it in my lifetime is Ken Seiling’s Region of Waterloo. He is leaving a strong legacy, but the future of the Region is uncertain.

Kate Daley is an environmental professional and a graduate of York University’s PhD program in political science, where she studied transit, urban growth management, and regional government in the Waterloo area. She has managed two successful municipal campaigns, and participated in the organization of this year’s Women’s Municipal Campaign School in Waterloo Region. She is currently on parental leave with her family’s new baby. Disclosure: The author’s spouse is a councillor representing the City of Waterloo’s Ward 6, and is currently running for re-election.

City of Vancouver: Civic Elections 2018

Written by: Patrick Smith 

The City of Vancouver has the oldest continuous local political party system in Canada. It has also had one of the most orderly. Following a 1935 referendum to replace ward-based elections with an at-large system, a right of centre political force, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) was formed in 1937 to combat what was seen by local business advocates as a leftist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) threat at city hall. After winning the Mayoral race in 1940, the NPA came to win a majority of council elections and mayor in each civic election between 1941 and 1967.

At the end of the 1960’s, one political interregnum occurred when more Liberal local reformist elements, energized by anti-urban renewal/ anti-urban freeway politics led to a platform of change, briefly superseding the NPA with The Electors Action Movement (TEAM). This centrist vs centre-right tussle resulted in TEAM civic majorities between 1972-80, after which TEAM fell back to contender status, before disbanding in 1984 – a short political interlude but one which had a significant impact on the city’s future development.

COPE (the Committee/Coalition of Progressive Electors) and other left independents also came to challenge NPA predominance in the first half of the 1980’s – with former TEAM councillor Mike Harcourt taking over the mayor’s chair, running as a left Independent (1980-86). Harcourt subsequently served as BC NDP Premier in 1991-1996; he was followed as mayor by Gordon Campbell, for the NPA; (3 terms -1986-93), and succeeded by NPA colleague Phillip Owen, for another 3 terms, 1993-2001). Campbell, too, went on to serve as BC’s Premier (Liberal, 2001-2011).

In total, between 1941 and present, the Non-Partisan Association could be described as the natural ruling party of the City of Vancouver. During this run, the NPA and its allies won mayoralty and council for more than 40 years. Eleven of the sixteen mayors have been NPA. Their closest, most successful rival, Gregor Robertson of Vision Vancouver is just finishing a 3rd term at 10 years.

Around 2001, the local political landscape began to change. Activists and local politicians agitated for a switch to Harm Reduction from the U.S. sponsored War On Drugs. Over the next three civic administrations, Vancouverites elected a leftist COPE mayor and council (Larry Campbell, 2001-2005), a return to rightist NPA (under Sam Sullivan. 2005-2008) and a shift to more centrist Vision (with Mayor Gordon Robertson (2008-2018). Robertson and Vision lead this local splinter, reconfigured from the COPE of Larry Campbell’s 2001-2005 term. What was remarkable is the fact that each of these three ideologically different administrations – between 2001 and the present maintained the central social policy consensus – to maintain Vancouver as North America’s first official Supervised Injection Site (InSite) and work on its harm reduction focus of the Four Pillars approach.

The local landscape of the October 20, 2018 civic elections reflects that consensus on the local opioid crisis, coupled with a new consensus on housing affordability – though not its solution – but the City’s politics are now much more convoluted: local voters have 21 candidates for mayor, including 7 with local party support; there are also 71 candidates for ten council seats with eleven local parties contesting. Voters need to figure out a split right wing which includes Coalition Vancouver, proVancouver, Vancouver 1st, and Yes Vancouver and the traditional pro-business NPA, plus independents such as Rollergirl and Mrs. Doubtfire.

In Vancouver, it has more often been the left/progressives who have split their vote, giving advantage to the NPA. The governing Vision Vancouver, after a decade in control of city council under Mayor Gregor Robertson, nominated as mayoral candidate Squamish Hereditary Chief, Ian Campbell, who then withdrew under a hint of scandal just before the mid-September close of nominations. No new Vision candidate was put forward though the party did manage to nominate seven Vision representatives – though only one incumbent appeared on the ballot for council.

After multiple local elections where the best predictor of re-electability was incumbency, 2018 is anticipated to be the an outlier of note. It is an oddity, where an Independent candidate for mayor, with District Labour Council endorsement, is the front-runner in the last month of the race; Dr. Kennedy Stewart, a 2-term MP/sometime SFU Public Policy/Urban Studies background with a strong ecological and democratic reform history, including contesting the Trans Mountain Pipeline, has led the large mayoral pack from the summer. Not surprisingly, the NPA, under Ken Sim, is his largest opposition; apart from Mayor, the NPA have ten council contestants.

A second oddity is the local Greens; their leader, Adrianne Carr has topped past polls for council but decided to not risk losing a seat in a less certain run for mayor. Instead they have a half dozen candidates seeking city council seats.

The split of the city’s right-wing forces, led by the NPA certainly is a third oddity: at least three of the local party candidates running for mayor sought the NPA’s nomination, After being rebuffed, the unhappy politicos set up new political tents nearby. With more than 70 council candidates and 21 running for mayor, (plus school board and local park board), name and local party recognition should influence outcomes (though perhaps less than a randomized ballot anticipates (see here). 

The fourth oddity is the impact of a new, not entirely fixed, local campaign finance law. Intended to “take big money out of local elections” by banning corporate and union contributions and adding limits for individuals, the switch in how and what can be raised and spent goes some way to explaining why half of Metro Vancouver’s 23 mayors decided to not run in 2018, including BC’s two largest municipalities – Vancouver and Surrey. The relative lack of advertising dollars may mean that voter recognition and turnout are also truncated below the typical mid-thirty-percent rate.

With the civic race now officially underway, Vancouver’s election results will be known on October 20th, just a month hence.

Fact-checking the Financial Impact of Council Downsizing

Written by: Patrick Kilfoil and Jean-Philippe Meloche

The debate over the size of Toronto’s city council is usually depicted as a fight between two seemingly defendable positions. On one hand, proponents of a smaller council tout potential savings, both short-term and long-term, as well as more effective decision-making. On the other, those who favour the status quo describe the move as a blow to local democracy. As far as facts are concerned, there is distinct lack of evidence to defend the former stance.

This is not the first attempt by the provincial government to tinker with local government structures, both in Toronto and elsewhere in the country. Who can forget the political crises over amalgamation that contributed to the downfall of governments in Ontario and Quebec at the turn of the century? In both cases, proponents of the proposed reforms championed fiscal responsibility and efficiency in decision-making as key arguments. While evidence may have lacked at the time to prove or disprove these claims, that is decidedly not the case anymore. Having studied the impact of council size on local governments’ budgets as well as the effect of council downsizing on their fiscal performance, we can predict that the impact of the Ford reform will at best have a marginal effect on Toronto’s overall budget, even in the long run.

Let’s look at the numbers. The City of Toronto’s expenses totalled $11.12 billion in 2018. The government estimates that slashing council from 44 members to 25 will lead to $25 million in savings in the operating budget. This represents a little over 0.2% of the City’s budget, and we would argue that this constitutes an overly optimistic estimate of potential savings that will actually materialize. Sure, reducing the number of elected officials will have an immediate impact on the operating budget of the council as an entity if the reform is implemented in time for the next election. But is it justified to weaken democratic responsiveness and representation for savings of just 0.2% of the total budget?

However, posed in this fashion, the question fails to account for the complexity of estimating the cost impact of such decisions. The work that elected officials actually accomplish on a daily basis, ranging from appearing to council meetings to fielding calls from their constituents and championing their causes in the municipal bureaucracy, does not disappear in thin air overnight once the bill currently debated at Queen’s Park receives royal assent. Recent research we published in Canadian Public Administration shows that the reduction of council size in Toronto in 2000, Quebec City in 2009, and Halifax Regional Municipality in 2012 is not correlated with a reduction in these cities’ operating budgets. In other words, downsizing council did not lead to savings on the overall budget. Whatever savings were accrued from council’s operating budget were simply transferred as increased expenses to other budget items to pay political staff and civil servants who are essentially doing the work that elected officials previously accomplished. In each of these cases, council downsizing failed to achieve what it was meant to do – namely to reduce costs. What is more alarming is that it also negatively impacted local democracy by imposing a time crunch on the remaining elected officials who now have less time to dedicate to their constituents because each councillor is representing more voters.

The question, therefore, is not whether achieving marginal savings is worth reducing the
effectiveness of local elected officials in representing their constituents, but rather how to defend an attack on local democracy in the absence of any discernable impact on the City’s financial performance. 

Patrick Kilfoil is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Urban Planning at McGill University. Jean-Phillippe Meloche is Professeur agrégé in École d’urbanisme et d’architecture de paysage, Université de Montréal. 

The 2018 Municipal Election in Niagara: The Fun Never Stops

Written by: David Siegel 

“All of Niagara has been played.” Rob Houle’s short and simple tweet is probably one of the most frequently retweeted laments about Niagara these days. 

Compared to some of the other municipalities covered in this blog, Niagara isn’t very large, but there is always something interesting happening here so I’m pleased to offer my contribution. 

After the October 22 election, the Niagara Regional Council will be composed of the mayors of the 12 area municipalities, 19 other representatives elected directly within the municipalities, and the regional chair. This election would have seen Niagara elect its regional chair for the first time, but the Ford government changed the rules in the middle of the game, so councillors will continue to select the regional chair.  

This will be a very interesting election in Niagara. In the previous four years, the Niagara Regional Council has been dominated by a group that has been christened the Conservative cabal. However, the group has now overstepped even the broad boundaries normally set by Niagara voters. Judging from the insurgent candidates’ literature with phrases like ‘Reset the Region’ and ‘Bring honesty, integrity and common sense back’ this could be a difficult year for incumbents.  

So, what’s happening?  

Many outside of Niagara will be disappointed to learn that Andy Petrowski, who has entertained so many of you with his bible-thumping, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-media posturing has decided not to run for office again. That’s one major embarrassment to Niagara out of the way. However, don’t be disappointed because the fun will continue in other ways. 

There could have been a number of issues in this campaign, but the major driver will certainly be the chief administrative officer. (I wrote a book recently about CAOs entitled Leaders in the Shadows. It’s an axiom among CAOs that the only time their name appears in print or in social media is when they’re in trouble. That’s certainly the case here.)  

The region appointed a new CAO in 2016. He had been CAO of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority which was having its own problems at the time. It was an interesting appointment in that he had limited municipal experience and the region is a much larger and more complex operation than the conservation authority. (The regional budget is about 100 times larger than the CA’s – $1.1 billion to $12 million.) However, people grow and develop their skills over the years, so good for him. 

Fast forward to 2018 and Grant LaFleche of the St Catharines Standard has been running a series of stories alleging that, at the time of the competition, the successful candidate was provided with information about the identity of the other candidates, and the questions that would be asked at the interview. It seems a staff member in the Regional Chair’s office also provided him with assistance about how to respond to the questions.  

By the way, rumours about this were on the street at roughly the same time that the competition was taking place. Some people aren’t even competent enough to run a small conspiracy. 

The Regional Chair’s “defense” is that this is politically motivated and he doesn’t read the Standard, anyway. For some reason, no one associated with the region has come forward and simply said that the allegations are false.  

But wait, the story gets better. When councillors started discussing this matter, they discovered that the chair had extended the CAO’s contract by several years without consulting council.  

Wait, there’s still more. While unilaterally extending the contract, the chair also added a provision that the CAO would get a severance package equal to one year’s pay even if he were fired for cause. Staff reportedly told council that it would cost about $1 million to get rid of the CAO.  

There seems to be a possibility that the contract extension might be void, but that is a thicket that the newly-elected council will have to deal with. The current council is now a ‘lame duck’ so under Ontario law, it cannot fire anyone. 

The Ombudsman is investigating the entire situation, but it is almost certain that the investigation will not be complete until well after next month’s election.  

Not surprisingly, this is the major issue in the campaign, which is unfortunate because there are issues related to regional transit, economic development, and some contentious land use decisions that should be discussed. 

It seems fairly certain that there will be some new faces around the regional council table after the election. The only question is how thoroughly the new broom will sweep. As we know, the public is not particularly attentive to municipal elections generally, and this is especially the case for elections at the regional level which is seen as a government at some remove from ‘real’ local issues. However, these extraordinary events might have increased the interest in regional affairs. 

It would also be unfortunate if voters’ outrage about these events caused them to turf out some of the good councillors who have been trying to handle this properly. There are certainly an inordinate number of candidates for regional office. St Catharines has 23 candidates for six seats including a former MPP and several people who have experience serving on local councils, but want the opportunity to ‘reset the region,’ as one of the candidates promises on her lawn signs.  

By the way, the major continuing issue on council’s agenda in recent years has been economic development because no one can figure out why businesses are not clamouring for the opportunity to locate in Niagara. Who would pass up an opportunity to get a front-row seat for this?

David Siegel is Professor of Political Science at Brock University.