John Tory Wants to Change Rules so He Can Meet With His Executive in Secret
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John Tory Wants to Change Rules so He Can Meet With His Executive in Secret

The mayor wants permission to meet in private. That undermines City Hall's credibility.

Democracy can be inconvenient and messy.

After all, deliberation and decision-making is done in public, and without a party system. Ontario mayors do not enjoy the same breadth of powers as, say, corporate CEOs. Coalitions must be built on an issue-by-issue basis. It takes time and effort to build consensus in this system.

John Tory would like to change that. Specifically, the mayor would like permission from the Province to privately meet with the 12 councillors on his Executive Committee, a move that is currently prohibited by the City of Toronto Act.

The Toronto Sun first reported the news of Tory’s desire to make this change after they filed a Freedom of Information request. In a follow-up with the Toronto Star, the mayor said he made the request to Kathleen Wynne in a recent meeting, but that the private meetings would only be to set priorities, not make decisions. He told the paper, “I am fully committed to, and find very healthy, the transparency of municipal governments.”

There’s a good reason why committees can’t meet in private (except for specific reasons, like discussing legal and employment matters): if they could meet in private whenever they wanted, then public deliberations wouldn’t have much meaning. Even if members of the committee didn’t come to a preordained decision as Tory insists, there would still be the perception they did. On contentious issues, critics would cry foul that they never got a fair shake, and the process would have less legitimacy. If the mayor is, as he says, “fully committed to…the transparency of municipal governments,” then he should see this rule as a feature, not a bug.

Yes, meetings take longer as a result. And herding the cats on Council can be frustrating. It’s also part of what makes the institution work. Of the three orders of government, it’s the most accessible to citizens and the most transparent about its decision-making. That’s a good thing.

Put another way, Tory’s change doesn’t pass the Rob Ford test. That is, what if a mayor with questionable ethics or competence was inherited that system? In that case, private meetings likely wouldn’t go well for the city.

John Tory comes from a background as a corporate executive and leader of a party caucus. Those are very different structures than City Hall, which is by its nature significantly more deliberative and accessible to citizens. That’s a good thing, and the mayor should embrace it.