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Reforming Toronto’s City Hall: U of T task force says don’t overhaul system, just fix it

Arial view of Toronto City Hall

A U of T task force recommends 14 steps to fix Toronto’s City Hall. Photo: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images.

A task force launched by U of T’s School of Public Policy & Governance (SPPG) is recommending a practical blueprint to reform Toronto’s City Hall – one that calls for incremental changes, not a complete overhaul.

“The task force debated whether we should go big or small,” says Gabriel Eidelman, an assistant professor at SPPG, who helped organize the undertaking. “We landed on let’s be smart and sensible rather than blow up the system.

“City Council is not functioning as well as it could, plain and simple. But the system is not beyond repair. What it needs is a push, and a sensible plan of action. That’s what we’ve delivered.”

The task force’s 14 recommendations include calling for an annual mayoral address to City Council in early spring to lay out strategic priorities focused on “the big picture, not ward-level grandstanding” and encouraging an annual, rolling review of local agencies, boards, corporations, and commissions. The report advises council meetings be capped at 12 hours per day and councillors’ questions to staff be restricted to a single question period at the beginning of each council session.

Task force members also urge a more welcoming atmosphere for deputations, including increased information for newcomers. They want City Council to delegate further responsibility and decision-making authority to community councils and focus instead on city-wide priorities.

“City Council meetings frequently devolve into political theatre, which undermines public confidence,” the report states. “Items are too often amended ‘on-the-fly’ without staff analysis, leading to hasty decisions and wasted time and resources.”

The task force hopes City Council will act on the recommendations soon since they don’t require any provincial intervention.

“These recommendations are about fixing the City of Toronto’s governance challenges. But the root issues they address are a familiar story for city councils across Canada struggling with efficacy, accountability, and transparency,” said Associate Professor Peter Loewen, director of SPPG.

Eidelman organized the task force along with urban public policy consultant Brian Kelcey, principal of State of the City.

The task force is composed of:

  • Former city manager Shirley Hoy, who is outgoing chair of U of T’s governing council
  • Former city manager  Joe Pennachetti, currently a senior adviser at U of T’s Institute on Municipal Finance & Governance and SPPG and a senior adviser at the Global Cities Institute and executive adviser to the World Council on City Data
  • Former city councillor David Soknacki
  • Former city councillor John Parker
  • Adrienne Batra, press secretary to former mayor Rob Ford and currently editor-in-chief of the Toronto Sun
  • Western University Assistant Professor Zack Taylor
  • CivicAction CEO Sevaun Palvetzian
  • Bianca Wylie, head of the Open Data Institute in Toronto
  • Ange Valentini, chief of staff to former councillor Adam Vaughan