2016 marks the 10-year anniversary — and legislative review — of the passage of the City of Toronto Act (COTA), a charter-like, home-rule, legislative milestone that acknowledged that Toronto, as Canada’s largest and most economically important city, requires powers that measure up to a major global city.
It was a major event that grabbed front page headlines, a ‘mission accomplished’ moment for Toronto’s Mayor David Miler, his highest first term priority. Everyone understood that it was the start of a new civic chapter in the city’s evolution. A decade later the City of Toronto Act might be lucky to be considered a footnote. Little of anything approaching the transformative promise of the now-most-empowered city in Canada transpired.
The fate of COTA may have been sealed by its denouncement by many in the legal and academic community. On first inspection COTA was a near carbon copy of its predecessor, the old province-wide Municipal Act. Save for the flowery preamble and some minor new taxing powers, it did not even deliver it the ability to levy a hotel tax, one of the few specific powers that Miller sought. But this interpretation of COTA’s limitations overlooks its great triumph.
The lens through which to understand the Act’s reforms is not the specific powers transferred to it. Rather, it is the broad and deliberately undefined authority it confers. COTA is the furthest break yet from the old constitutional paternalism of sharply defined prescriptive powers that spell out in black and white what the city can or cannot do. It is deliberately grey.
Broad permissive powers were the solution to the conundrum facing the city when Mayor Miller marched up Queen’s Park demanding a new city charter. In Dalton McGuinty, he found an unprecedentedly compliant Premier who was willing to give Toronto sweeping new powers. But the city had to answer one question: what powers did it want? Save for a few examples of a minor nature (like the unfettered authority to implement speed bumps), Toronto did not really have an answer. So a different approach was pursued.
The city came to the conclusion that it could not and should not fully anticipate what specific powers it needed. The future is uncertain. Powers required for today’s reality likely won’t serve tomorrow’s. In 2006, Airbnb wasn’t even a concept and the driverless car was science fiction. It was decided that within the broad spheres of municipal jurisdiction, the city could enact any power that served its interests. Any power!
The province maintained a veto (deliberately hard-to-use, requiring it to go to the back legislature to exercise), but the City was handed in effect blank cheque authority to manage its affairs and control its destiny. The shackles were cut. So why did we not experience an urban Renaissance over the past decade?
The most obvious reason is that no one got the memo. Few civic leaders came to understand the potential of COTA, elected or not. The buzz killers in the city’s legal department stifled intrepidness. Conditioned on narrow interpretations demanded by the old Municipal Act, the municipal legal community balked at the fuzziness of broad and undefined powers of COTA. Mayor Miller is to blame, too, as COTA was his file and not shared across council. Only he knew of its intended potential. On retirement he left no political leadership legacy. No one on council, then or now, seems to understand its power.
Mostly it is all of us. Despite numerous attempts to stoke civic innovation and creativity over the years, few serious big ideas have come forward. Even ‘disruptive’ third party innovations, like Uber, have caused council to reflex to old ways of thinking about how to run our city.
Two mayors and four city councils later it is time to recapture the excitement of a decade ago. It’s time to dream about new approaches to economic development, poverty, the environment, urban mobility, and land use. The secrets to these are likely found in a dusty old piece of legislation passed a decade ago.
Richard Joy is Executive Director of ULI Toronto. Previously, he served as Vice President, Policy and Government Relations at the Toronto Board of Trade, and was the Director of Municipal Affairs and Ontario (Provincial Affairs) at Global Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RichardJoyTO or email at Richard.Joy@uli.org