Toronto council votes to challenge Ford‘s council-cutting bill in court

The city’s clerk says that a “tipping point” has been reached and it is now “virtually impossible” to carry out a fair and democratic election on Oct. 22.

Ulli Watkiss made the comment during an emergency meeting of council that was held to discuss Premier Doug Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause to override a judge’s ruling and slash the number of municipal wards from a planned 47 to 25.

The change was initially passed into law on Aug. 14 but it was struck down after a judge deemed it unconstitutional in a decision released on Monday. Hours later, Ford announced that he would use the notwithstanding clause to make a revised version of the bill immune to charter challenges, creating yet more uncertainty and disarray at city hall.

Council did direct the city‘s solicitor to challenge the province‘s latest bill in court during Thursday‘s meeting, though that is considered a longshot by legal experts.

“Every hour that goes by, every day that goes by creates greater uncertainty and raises in me a huge concern over the proper conduct of this election. I have to let council know that,” Watkiss said during Thursday’s meeting.

The provincial bill cutting the size of council is still in its first reading at Queen’s Park and the opposition has vowed to do whatever they can to delay its passage.

The bill will, however, become law at some point towards the end of September.

Speaking with reporters at Queen’s Park on Thursday, Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said that he has “all the confidence in the world” that the election can be carried out as scheduled on Oct. 22 under the 25-ward format.

Watkiss, however, expressed doubts about whether a fair and democratic vote can be held on short notice, given the ongoing back-and-forth over the very format of the election.

With that in mind, she told members of council that she has obtained private counsel and will seek legal advice on whether she could push the date of the vote back if needed.

The current term of council expires at midnight on Nov. 30, meaning that an election would have to be completed in advance of that date.

“It is becoming very difficult to expect that voters and candidates can operate under these scenarios,” Watkiss said.

Clerk says advance polling must not be skipped

While the provincial bill reducing the size of council does permit the clerk to forgo advance voting, Watkiss said it is her belief that doing so would result in an election that is “not fair” and does not “meet the principals of the legislation” governing elections.

In addition to challenges around advance voting, Watkiss also said that her office is dealing with a number of difficulties resulting from the confusion over the election format.

She said that separate voter information cards have been printed on the basis of both a 25-ward election and a 47-ward election. City officials are supposed to send out voter information cards on Sept. 17, though it is unclear whether that will happen as scheduled.

“It is totally confusing,” Watkiss conceded.

Council asks lawyers to challenge bill in court

During today’s meeting members of city council voted 26-10 in favour of directing the city solicitor to challenge the provincial bill in court.

Council also voted 24-12 in favour of formally asking the federal government to use the power of disallowance to override the bill; something that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already indicated that he has no intention of doing.

The power of disallowance has not been used by the federal government since 1943.

“Everything that Canada stands for right now is under threat and we have to act and respond as if it is a declaration of war because that is exactly what it is,” Ward 27 Coun. Kristyn Wong Tam said during the debate.

“We are on the verge of being plunged into a situation where we could have an election here that is successfully legally challenged because it is just so messed up,” added Ward 23 Coun. John Filion. “The city clerk has been put in the impossible situation of being legally charged with running an election and doesn’t know whether it is possible to discharged her duties to the point where she needs outside legal advice on how to do that. It has gotten crazy.”

The vast majority of councillors at Thursday’s meeting were critical of Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause, though Ward 39 Coun. Jim Karygiannis did get into a heated exchange with Wong-Tam in which he asked her “was the premier not duly elected and does he not have the right to use everything in his arsenal to bring forth his agenda?

Ward 7 Coun. Girogio Mammolit also expressed his support for Ford’s move by “boycotting” the meeting, which he called the “socialist romper room crybaby meeting” in a message posted to Twitter earlier this week.

Speaking at the close of Thursday’s meeting, Mayor John Tory called the use of the notwithstanding clause “not right” and said that in working together to stop it members of council have exhibited “the best of this chamber and its commitment to democracy.”

“We made it clear last month that we just think it is unacceptable that anyone would even think about changing the rules of an election in the middle of an election. That is not what happens in a fair and reasonable democracy,” he said.

In advance of today’s meeting, Federation of Canadian Municipalities Big City Mayors’Caucus Chair Don Iveson released a statement criticizing Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause and offering the City of Toronto “full support” in their “efforts to protect local democracy.”

In the statement Iveson, who is also the mayor of Edmonton, suggested that the time may have come for a rethink of the legislation governing municipalities in Canada.