The City of Toronto can expect to have a decision soon about whether the province’s new law to slash council from 47 to 25 seats will stand.
Judge Edward Belobaba told an Ontario Superior Court Friday that after the day’s hearings, he would need until Sept. 10 — or Sept. 11 at the latest — to make a ruling on the challenges to Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act.
He said his aim was to have it before Sept. 14, the nomination deadline for councillors and school board trustees.
The three challenges — from the city, as well as council candidates and voters — hinge on Charter rights, constitutional principles and effective representation, among other issues.
But Belobaba said if there is a genuinely persuasive argument against Bill 5, it will find itself under Section 2(b) — freedom of expression — of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
City lawyer Diana Dimmer argued Toronto has the power to change ward boundaries and the composition of council.
She said the city commissioned an independent review of the boundaries, with the guiding principle being whether there’s effective representation — a notion, she pointed out, that goes back to confederation.
“Dividing the city into 25 wards creates ward sizes that are significantly larger than ward sizes of any other municipality in Ontario,” the city’s legal team has said. “Such a redistribution of wards does not provide for effective representation now or in the future.”
Dimmer also chided Premier Doug Ford for comments he made at Queen’s Park suggesting city council will debate for 10 hours about getting a cat out of a tree.
“This isn’t a joke. This is very serious,” she said, noting Toronto’s government is the sixth largest in Canada, after Ottawa and a handful of provinces.
Belobaba acknowledged Toronto might have a “dysfunctional council” and “time-wasting debates,” but he also cited a Supreme Court decision outlining “the right to have one’s grievances heard by a local representative.”
Bill’s impact on marginalized groups
Goldblatt Partners — representing council candidate Chris Moise and voter Ish Aderonmu and advocacy group Women Win TO — said Bill 5 interferes with fundamental charter and electoral rights and disproportionately affects people of colour, women and LGBTQ candidates.
Lawyer Heather Ann McConnell said the bill further disadvantaged these groups, “widen[ing] the gap of discrimination for candidates, electors and community groups.”
Howard Goldblatt also argued that although the city clerk said switching back to a 47-ward election at this point wouldn’t be possible “without concerns for the integrity of the vote,” those comments weren’t categorical.
He said all of the preparation for the 47-ward structure has been preserved.
“In fact, it can be done,” he said. “It needs to be done.”
Timing of Bill 5
Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein — representing a group of council hopefuls and voters who were serving as intervenors and were not party to any of the applications — said Bill 5 interferes with democracy.
Donald Eady said Queen’s Park “has come into the City of Toronto, and only the City of Toronto, and has changed the rules of the game two-thirds of the way through an election campaign.”
He called it a “very serious incursion into democratic process.”
The province’s lawyers argued Bill 5 achieves great voter parity by evening out the population in each ward so each vote has similar weight.
But lawyers for council candidate Rocco Achampong called the province’s argument flawed and short-sighted.
They also said the federal boundary review is “totally inappropriate” for local government, and if applied to other municipalities, would leave Hamilton with five councillors, North Bay with one, and Barrie with none.
“Toronto was singled out for this treatment,” said Gavin Magrath.
Meanwhile the province’s lawyer Robin Basu said it does not have to consult municipalities, calling them “creatures of the Legislature.”
He claimed solicitor-client privilege and refused to confirm Belobaba’s suspicions that the Ford government did not seek legal advice before proceeding with the bill.
He also reiterated the city clerk’s comments about maintaining the integrity of the election and addressed the timing issue, saying intervening after the election would have been even more disruptive.
Bill 5, which became law on Aug. 14, also cancels planned elections for regional chairs in Muskoka, Peel, York and Niagara, turning them into appointed roles, and redraws school ward boundaries.
Belobaba postponed the Toronto District School Board’s challenge of the trustee changes until a decision is made on the main issue of council cuts.